Why developers should be allowed to roam free

As developer influence grows, enterprises that use -- and companies that sell -- software must remove as many constraints on coders as possible

Why developers should be allowed to roam free
Credit: Mat Fascione

Most everyone now seems to subscribe to RedMonk's "developers are the new kingmakers" thesis. Sadly, very few software companies understand how to take advantage of this power shift.

The confusion plays out again and again in the business and support models of otherwise developer-savvy software companies, which use bait-and-switch open source strategies to encourage adoption of and payment for their software. We used to call this "open core."

Today, let's call it "stupid."

It's not really about the licensing, as important as that is. It involves thinking about developers as essential to making money -- although not the actual source of that money.

Influence galore

One company, Atlassian, has made a bundle of money from developers. In its most recent fiscal year, Atlassian minted more than $300 million, largely by peddling relatively inexpensive wiki and developer-oriented productivity tools.

But Atlassian is the exception to the rule. That rule: Developers influence, but they don't pay.

To what degree do developers influence? Well, according to a new 451 Research report, "Microsoft Hosting and Cloud Study 2015," developers are unparalleled in the amount of influence they exert over IT purchasing decisions:

Choosing Cloud Services

Commenting on the survey data, analyst Donnie Berkholz told me, "While developers often don't have the authority to make major buying decisions, they're among the most influential roles."

How you measure that influence depends on whether you're building or selling software. For enterprises that use software to power their increasingly digital businesses, developers are the ones downloading open source software to build stuff for IT or the line of business.

But for enterprises that sell software, developers are the ones who make their products relevant ... or obsolete.

Getting out of developers way

This is where licensing plays its part. As I wrote recently, open source software licensing remains unnecessarily opaque. Some of the complexity is by design, and that's unfortunate.

For years, companies have tried to trade off the popularity of open source projects by creating "enterprise" versions of otherwise open projects. Often, the primary difference between the "community" and "enterprise" builds is a get-out-of-open-source-for-not-very-free contract provision. Such duplicitous licensing aims to get the developer love of open source while earning some CIO cash. Unfortunately, it's an inefficient means to this laudable end.

After all, this open core model has yet to lead to a single company earning in excess of $100 million. As such, one would think companies would stop trying this tired, ineffective business model. But they persist. A friend from a prominent open source company called the other day asking for advice on how to make it work. "It won't," I told her. I doubt she'll listen.

It's unfortunate because her employer, and every other enterprise, desperately needs developer love, and the optimal route for developers is the one with the fewest strings attached, as VisionMobile survey data reveals:

api and sdk features VisionMobile

The most striking detail in this data is how little developers want to rely on vendors. While they'll gratefully accept documentation and sample code (and grumble in their absence), they prefer third-party support forums over platform providers' own, dedicated forums, and they prefer almost anything over paid support.

In response to the question "Why do developers eschew official channels to such an extent?" software developer Bill Ray writes:

In part it is lack of trust, born of a cynicism endemic to the younger generation which makes up the majority of developers. There is a feeling that official channels won't host comments, or responses, critical of the vendor's products or services.... Perhaps more important is the way in which modern developers work across platforms, and are often looking for support which will help them work with competitive products.

Being real with developers

According to IDC, there were more than 18.5 million software developers globally in 2014, with cloud computing expanding the developer population faster than that of traditional IT professionals. If developers are crowning winners today, their importance will only increase as their population swells.

This means that for enterprises both in the business of using or selling software, it's time to get serious about developers. Mostly that means they both need to figure out how to enable developers to influence without gating that ability through cumbersome licensing or IT policies.

Otherwise stated: Get out of the way. Now.

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