Open source roundtable: Robert Sutor

IBM's VP of open source and standards views success in open source as a matter of policy

As vice president of open source and standards at IBM, Robert Sutor is charged not only with advocating use of open source among IBM customers but also ensuring adherence to open source standards and policies within IBM.

InfoWorld spoke with Sutor on these and other matters pertaining to open source as part of its roundtable on the state of open source. Here's how Sutor sees the open source landscape evolving.


Robert Sutor

Vice president of open source and standards

InfoWorld: What do you see as the more pressing challenges and opportunities for open source given the current tech climate?

Sutor: I think the open source community has to focus on the final issues needed to really get broad adoption of Linux on the desktop. This means dealing with device drivers, breadth of applications, look and feel, and usability. To me, this means trying to make the Linux desktop as capable and as friendly as the Mac, rather than trying to emulate Windows, for example. In the same way, I want to see more open source applications be the recognized stars of their product categories and be the first to showcase innovations.

IW: Where do you see open source heading in the next five years, especially with regard to development, community, and market opportunities?

Sutor: I've been talking to a lot of people lately who were relatively early adopters of open source in customer environments but who are now looking to start new projects with their peers in their industries. When this next wave of people come in, it may unsettle some of the earlier understandings of expectations and "how things are supposed to work." Everyone will just need to adjust. I think the area of open source organizational governance will become very hot in the next few years. What are your policies on open source entering or leaving your organization? How do you deal with open source in the products that you create or that you OEM from other people? How do you do this efficiently across all your business units so that you avoid unnecessary conflicts yet drive the whole business forward? Who decides?

IW: Does widespread adoption and commercialization of open source software create new challenges or pressures for open source projects?

Sutor: I don't think there is a lot of common and good guidance out there for how a small open source project can deal with suddenly becoming very popular.

Similarly, it seems to take a long time for some open source projects to yield successful businesses based on them. I think we'll know open source has really arrived when every reputable business school spends a significant amount of time educating its students about the business models around open source. The new challenges and pressures will arise because of business issues, and not technology, in my opinion. We have many, many excellent developers in the open source communities. We need to have many, many more excellent "big picture" leaders emerging from and for those communities.

IW: What are the next steps needed for open source as a software production methodology to reach the next level?

Sutor: More software development companies need to adopt internal software development models based on what we have learned from open source communities. We need more best-selling books on open source development models that are bought and studied by mainstream programmers. We need more people to ask, "Why wouldn't we open source this?" We need to better reward developers by recognizing merit and earned technical reputation.

IW: Open source now enjoys a rich and complex history, which is largely the result of trial and error over the years. What would you say have been the open source community's greatest missteps, or lessons learned?

Sutor: I wouldn't call this a misstep, but I'm dismayed when I see the relatively small efforts put behind industry-specific open source projects. Outside of education and the public sector in general, there are very few projects that have gotten a lot of attention and adoption. I love it when I see Sakai and Moodle doing well and competing in the education and learning area. We need to repeat that in insurance, banking, automotive, retail, energy, telecommunications, and all the other industries. Another thing I think we need to do is better promote and laud the free and open source heroes from around the world. These people have literally changed the IT industry, yet outside of a few well-known folks, many of them are relatively obscure.

IW: If you could wave your wand and create the perfect software "universe," what would it look like?

Sutor: Let me focus on standards. More open source developers and communities would be part of the standards development processes around the world, rather than largely leaving that to representatives of corporations. Choosing a free and open source license would be as easy as choosing one from the Creative Commons, and no one would be tempted to tweak it. Intellectual property policies of standards organizations would be more closely aligned to free and open source licenses to remove uncertainty. More generally, open source developers and leaders would stop aligning themselves with and giving the benefit of the doubt to those who historically and consistently have been hostile to open source. It's fine to encourage change in this regard, but be realistic and think long-term.

IW: There has been a fair amount of controversy, competition, and dissent within the various open source communities. Does this lack of agreement damage the long-term goals of open source, or would you like to see more of this?

Sutor: I think within many proprietary software companies and behind closed doors, there has been a fair amount of controversy, competition, and dissent. Open source people just get to air their "dirty laundry" in public. I don't necessarily expect more of this, but I think that the value of transparency in knowing how decisions are made and who influences them outweighs any attempt to curtail public and noisy discussion. I don't think it damages the long-term goals of open source, but how people behave in such discussions goes a long way to establishing their reputations, which may affect their personal long-term goals.

Roundtable home page: The state of open source

Other roundtable participants
Matt Asay
Vice president of business development, Alfresco
Andy Astor
CEO of EnterpriseDB
Chris DiBona
Open source programs manager, Google
Bruce Perens
Creator of the Open Source Definition and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative
Sam Ramji
Senior director of platform technology strategy, Microsoft
Eric S. Raymond
Programmer, author, and open source software advocate
Dave Rosenberg
CEO and co-founder, Mulesource
Javier Soltero
CEO, Hyperic
Mark Spencer
Founder and CTO, Digium
Zack Urlocker
Vice president of products, MySQL

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.