Being "Jewish" and open source

I was flying back from Helsinki yesterday and was in line at Heathrow Customs behind an earnest young man. The Customs officer asked him,"What nationality are you?", referring to something the teenager had written on his Customs declaration."Jewish."was the response."That's not a nationality. That's a religion."I rudely snickered with the men in line behind me, but it occurs to me well after the fact that the te

I was flying back from Helsinki yesterday and was in line at Heathrow Customs behind an earnest young man. The Customs officer asked him,

"What nationality are you?"

, referring to something the teenager had written on his Customs declaration.

"Jewish."

was the response.

"That's not a nationality. That's a religion."

I rudely snickered with the men in line behind me, but it occurs to me well after the fact that the teenager was simply replying according to a different definition of nationality. (I wish I could ask the boy's pardon, though I'm not sure he heard me.) If asked what we are at our core, we're almost certainly something else before we're Americans, Nigerians, Lebanese, etc.

In like manner, and this will sound trite in comparison to the above, but I'm not in the software business. I'm in the open source business. Open source software business, if you like, but open source is the foundation and core of my interest in software. It's what makes business interesting to me, because it's more than "just a different way of doing business."

I therefore take umbrage (mild, but it's there) when people suggest that it's just software. It is, on one level. Proprietary versus open source is not a question of life or death, and no one goes to Hell for selling proprietary software (they suffer in Purgatory for a spell, but they wash clean eventually ;-)

But it is a question of customer value. I carp on proprietary software, not because I'm a "hunter gatherer" (to use Sam's phrase), but because there is no customer value in keeping software proprietary. The opposite, in fact. If this is true, and I firmly believe that it is, then don't be surprised that I, too, am more "Jewish" than "American."

Sam writes a thoughtful post on the need to stop treating software as a zero sum battle between proprietary and open source software. He cogently argues:

High-level, simplistic discussions of “A vs. B” miss the reality that there are different right answers – and sometimes multiple right answers – for any given segment.

I have personally heard – among other places, at the Open Source Software Think Tank 2007 – enterprise CIOs state exactly this: “I don’t have time for science experiments.” I believe this was Max Rayner, CIO of SurfControl. You can take that quote as disparaging open source, or you can include the context of the statement, which is this: enterprise CIOs are looking for technologies that solve their problems. Their definition of the problem includes long-term viability, mission-critical support, and interoperability with their other technologies. So what this quote means is “if you have a technology for me – open source or not – you have to provide for my key concerns.” Companies like Novell, Red Hat, JBoss, and MySQL have built businesses based on meeting these needs. This is reality. It is foolish to label these companies and their customers, users, and community as playing with things that are “not proven” or “science experiments”.

This is not a war. This is about technology.

Agreed, Sam. What I'm still waiting to hear is how proprietary software fulfills any of the above CIO requirements. That's my problem with the argument. It's true, so far as it goes, but it stops short of the customer. It is very firmly a vendor-centric argument.

I remember what I used to have to say as a Novell employee. We had (and the company still has) a hybrid source model. When asked (by customers, media, whomever), "Why do you keep some of your software proprietary?" Our answer was that we are "customer driven" and open source our technology according to customer demand. This was, of course, a complete dodge. The customer wasn't consulted - we kept code proprietary because either a) it was hard to open source for practical reasons (which is a good, but not long-term persuasive argument) or b) we simply didn't know how to make money from it otherwise (which is a vendor problem, not a customer problem).

I'm guessing that I'd get the exact same responses from Microsoft. No customers are asking you to keep your software closed. There are a lot of customer interests served by opening up, but none by keeping closed.

Is this a war? I don't think so, because I tend to really like the people I know at Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Salesforce.com, etc. that I know. All good people.

But it is a war in the sense that open source vendors are determined to prove that we can provide more customer value by opening our code and providing all that other value (long-term viability, support, etc.) that you cited. It's a battle that will be fought over 10-plus years, not the next two or three. But when you watch governments flocking to open source, and 81% of enterprises saying that they believe open source produces better code, surely you can see that more is at stake here than semantics?

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