The download deception

Downloads are an interesting metric, but they reflect brand strength and market opportunity, not current success

As part of Microsoft's attempt to convince us all that Windows 8 is not the dogs' dinner some claim it is, Steve Ballmer announced this week that the company had sold 4 million Windows 8 upgrades in the first three days of general availability. While that number (which must include some combination of downloads and discs) sounds impressive, it leaves me cold. After all, I remember the open source download metrics at Sun Microsystems.

Downloads are a popular metric because they are easy to measure, but relating them to something that's useful to know is much harder.Those Windows 8 upgrades that were downloaded, for example, may have been driven by huge limited-time discounts (hurry, just $14.99 if you've bought a Windows 7 PC in the last 11 weeks!).

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At best an imperfect measure of adoption, the number of downloads tells you nothing about the satisfaction of the downloader. Downloaded files may not be used at all or may be saved for later. Open source downloads in particular may be used multiple times. They may be evaluations; they may be in error. The downloaders may be new users or established users. These and other variables mean there's a high margin of error for any conclusion derived from download numbers.

Downloads and business models

At Sun, a focus on downloads arose out of the switch to an open source strategy in 2005. It was clear from the start open source was going to be a long-term strategy rather than a short-term tactic, bearing the most significant fruit on a five- to seven-year timescale. Indeed, that turned out to be correct; the successful communities we built back then, especially those around Java and identity management, have been real assets.

In many ways we were trailblazing. No significant software company had ever switched their entire business strategy to open source like this before. In the absence of a large working example, we had to extrapolate a methodology and invent new practices. Some were very effective -- the analysis of copyright ownership was very thorough, for example, leading to strong principles and tools for managing the tracking of open source licensing as software flowed through the organization.

The business model most of the teams in the company decided to use involved monetizing mature deployment of the software. By promoting easy adoption of the software, a market would be created for services and support as the adoption lifecycle progressed. Individual adopters lead to enterprise evaluations, evaluations lead to pilots, pilots lead to deployments, and deployments lead to enterprise standardization. If that process could be seeded, significant, stable business could be expected in later stages as enterprises purchased subscriptions for easy updates to sustain their production systems.

As it turns out, that model was correct. I'm aware of a number of companies that have been able to pick up where Sun left off and carry use of Sun's software through to the profitable latter stages. While it was ridiculed by some, long-term thinking about open source was working for Sun's software business, and had Sun not been severely destabilized in 2008 by the Wall Street crash cutting off its legacy income, we might today see an open source powerhouse driven by that model.

Downloads and damn lies
The problem with a long-term strategy is how to measure progress in the short term. Because future success depends on broad adoption of the software, most teams at Sun chose to measure their progress by attempting to measure adoption. That's hard to do. And the approach they took failed to recognize another crucial success factor for open source development: community health.

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