Bruce Perens is one of the founders of the open source movement. He operates his own consulting company, sits on the board of Open Source Risk Management, and is senior scientist for open source at George Washington University’s Cyber-Security Policy & Research Institute. In an extended interview with InfoWorld, Perens got to the heart of open source’s value to the enterprise.
IW: How can access to source code and the open source development model benefit companies?
BP: I look at software development as something that, in general, is a cost center to your company. [There are] three paradigms, really, of software development. One is your conventional brick-and-mortar retail paradigm. Then you have the contract or “inside” software development paradigm. In both cases, you are accepting almost all of the cost and risk -- and risk on these things is about 50 percent. About half of contract or internal developments don’t work out. The problem is, with this sort of development, if you’re doing it for nondifferentiators, you’re losing money.
And then there’s open source. Open source is partnership with rules. “Sharing with rules” is what we usually call it. It is only good for nondifferentiating software, just as buying from Microsoft is only good for nondifferentiating software, because everybody can get either one of those things. Your competitor can have the same stuff as you.
Contract or internal development is very good for your differentiating software because it lets you keep it all. Probably 10 percent of the software in your business is differentiating. Maybe you should consider open source for the rest.
With open source, we distribute the cost among multiple developers. We distribute the risk simply in the act of distributing cost, because we do the distribution of cost up front rather than when people buy a finished product. And the particular partnership that is induced by the licensing seems to have the effect of putting the programmers a little more in charge. It turns out that marketing just doesn’t have a crystal ball and that putting the programmers in charge works a good deal of the time.
What we’re seeing with companies participating in open source is that they can spend less in a cost center for nondifferentiating software than they otherwise would, and then they can take some of their software budget and move it over to the differentiators, where it really makes a difference for their bottom line.
What that leaves us with is that we have to look within our businesses at what is differentiating and what isn’t. And that’s actually very hard for a business because a lot of businesses have this sort of not-invented-here syndrome, where they’re not really willing to look at what others are doing. And that stems from just not respecting that others might be as good as they are.