Succeeding with an Open Source License

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FACTS: Matt adopted B2 and forked WordPress, Mark adopted Linux and forked Ubuntu.

EPIPHANY: The mainstream success of any open source software is directly proportionate to the passion of the people who adopt it.

MORE THOUGHTS: Building a decent product on GPL and distinguishing it from the competition is not enough. You still need people with heart to endorse it; people who are passionate and believe in its utility. Corporate backing, funding, partnerships and marketing definitely aid spreading a platform far and wide but a face that stands for everything in the product is priceless, a face that wouldn’t fail the community for minting money. WordPress and Ubuntu are my favorite examples.

Open source is not just a fad anymore and it’s more than just a cost benefit. In fact, we are embracing open source software more and more based on the merits of the software than its cost benefits. So when I see an open source project fail I wonder if people working on them had enough conviction.

Staying Behind Closed Doors

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This post is in response to the one I read on Computer World. You might want to take a look at it, ’cause the idea to write this originated on reading this.

The only reason why Google is pushing for open source standards and formats alone is because its business model is completely different from that of Adobe, Apple or Microsoft. Google’s main source of revenue is CONTEXTUAL ADVERTISING. So, it makes sense for them to invest in open source technologies and spreading their adoption among content developers/ distributors. And if this happens which kind of seems likely, Google, with its bunch of amazing computer scientists and proprietary search algorithms, will be the most powerful company in the IT space. Proprietary and patent protected formats and publishing standards are the only that can rain on its parade. Though proprietary media streaming formats and web application frameworks like that of Quicktime from Apple, Flash from Adobe and Silverlight from Microsoft are not as easily adopted as the open source frameworks, their value is deeply rooted in their paid license (though lately, Google has managed to push these otherwise closed companies to create more open standards compliant frameworks) as they fend off other companies, from monetizing their content. Google happens to be one of those companies that thrives off your content, though not intentionally and with a fair disclosure, but it just happens to be. Google roots for open source because it enables easy access to your content for building more intelligent advertising solutions which means more money for the company.

We can love Google for all its openness, and free tools viz., Blogger, Groups, Sites and a score of others but we shouldn’t despise Microsoft, or Apple for their closed systems. The only reason why Google is lobbying for an Open Web because they are more aptly positioned to reap the direct benefits of an open web while these other companies are not. Now, holding Google on a pedestal and scoffing at Microsoft doesn’t seem all that right to me. Microsoft has created incredible value for many of us, for years. With its suite of products/services it enabled us to be in charge of our creations, albeit for a fee. These companies never wanted access to our data. They provided the tools, the OS, the productivity suite, and got out of the way. None of the online publishing tools that are available for free (the most popular ones being from Google, others being ZoHo, Evernote, and so many others), are as powerful as Microsoft’s or Adobe’s Desktop applications.

We probably don’t realize this now but Google’s gimmicks at open sourcing its technologies have a much greater potential of disrupting the worldwide IT business. Imagine a decade later when all content is created using open source formats and there is no one accountable for security, or performance of content. Yes, there will be support communities and companies providing managed services for your content but their liability would be limited to their service. They would never be accountable for a bug in an open source software. You won’t be able to reclaim your losses for failed protection OR file a lawsuit against.

Google probably realized it early that knowledge is power. And invested heavily and patiently (Google waited 5 years to let YouTube pick up before monetizing it with ads) in building services for free that would attract creation of content to which it can freely access. Clearly, the Contextual Advertising based revenue model requires Google to have access to as much content as possible. Though it sounds a little evil and conniving, Google has been open about it all the time. In a recent interview Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google Inc., very frankly admitted that information is power. I thought a little about it and realized that Google not only has most liberal access to the world’s information but also the tools and talent to create knowledge out of it. And it is this knowledge that will hurl Google decades ahead of every other IT company. Underlying its aggressive diversification into areas as unrelated as Energy and Cable Networks I see Google’s infinite hunger for information it can turn to power.

For the same reason, it kind of makes me feel that Google is the only company working in the Information Technology space while others just, well, seem like Technology companies. So, should we be feared now with Google in charge of our email, discussions, and ideas? I am sure that our content is more secure with Google than with us, just like our money is more secure in a Bank than with us and we shouldn’t be paranoid. In fact, I have a few domains hosted with Google Apps myself. However lately I have begun to realize the importance of  being in control over the virtue of ease of use and managed services which are so well-integrated within Google’s products. I also appreciate intelligent advertisements from Adsense but sometimes feel like there’s got to be a plug that I can pull when I want. Now I can see why some organizations, choose Omniture over Google Analytics, WordPress over Blogger, Cisco over Google Wave OR Microsoft Exchange over Google Apps. It’s now clear to me that not all businesses are the same. And many if not all of them choose against Google to preserve control over the information that they create.

For all its openness Google will never open up its proprietary search algorithms for content publishers, however, it will always have access to our content because we adopted the open standards Google endorsed . So, those who think Google is more open than Microsoft, think again. No company can open up the secret to their core competency, and Google’s core competency lies in its search algorithms just like Microsoft’s lies in its source code for Windows or Office. I hope I am not the only one to see this but imagine what would happen if the open formats endorsed by Google (such as VP8 for online video encoding and streaming, please note that it is still a contention, Google hasn’t officially announced opening the format) are universally adopted. Of course, Google itself will become the fiercest competitor for all online business owners because it would be better positioned to make money from our content than ourselves. Google being the gates through which information will flow on the internet, there would be no competition left, may be Face Book which is another company pushing for open web as it is privy not only to information we create but our entire life streams.

The opening up of formats and relying on open source technologies is good so far as when our business is as open, i.e., the revenues are either based on sponsorships or affiliate commissions. For businesses who make money from actually selling their services/ products to customers who demand them, going open is not a suitable option. They are better off with by paying for a scalable but closed system of software and formats.

Considering the amount of power that resides with companies like Google and FaceBook, I have come to appreciate the importance of staying behind closed doors and acknowledge the value provided by closed systems. Maybe the web should not be so open after all.