Open source roundtable: Matt Asay

The Alfresco VP of business development invites proprietary software stalwarts to the growing open source table

As Open Source Business Conference content chair and vice president of business development at open source enterprise content management vendor Alfresco, Matt Asay is well-versed in the challenges open source projects face in capitalizing on today's business opportunities.

InfoWorld spoke with Asay about these and other open source issues as part of its roundtable on the state of open source. Here's how Asay sees the open source movement evolving.


Matt Asay

Vice president of business development

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

Asay: On the one hand, in a recession we typically see a "flight to value." Alfresco includes veterans from Oracle, Documentum, Business Objects, and others. We've weathered these downturns before. Oracle, for example, has emerged stronger from each downturn because, at the time, it offered significant value for the money. The tables have turned now, and I suspect we'll see companies like MySQL cutting into the proprietary incumbents. Well-run open source projects -- community-sponsored and corporate-sponsored -- deliver superior technology at a lower cost. Hence, open source should actually gain ground on proprietary software in a recession.

That said, as IT budgets dry up, there will be much less inclination to bet on new projects. At least, not those that require significant capital investment. What we may end up seeing is a lot of dabbling in open source during the recession, preparing to ramp up payments into open source once the economy resumes growth.

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

Asay: We have demonstrated that it's possible to kick-start successful open source projects with venture capital. As such, I believe we'll see a real flowering of commercial open source projects with significant competition within markets. We're seeing this today in the IT management market, with Hyperic, GroundWork, Zenoss, and others competing aggressively for market share. In the enterprise content management market, Alfresco finally got a real peer in Acquia. This is good and indicates that the best is yet to come in commercial open source.

I also believe we're going to see the proliferation of projects like Eclipse, Linux, and Firefox -- projects that command significant commercial investment, simultaneously serving as hubs for competition and collaboration. As such projects flourish, we'll see greater innovation because each individual market participant won't have to reinvent the wheel and will instead innovate around the edges of communal projects.

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

Asay: It does, but I believe the very structure of open source mitigates against too much fallout from the success of open source. With all the M&A activity, for example, it's to be expected that some will jump into the market for a quick flip on their investment. But open source isn't something you can force. Community doesn't come easily, and turning adoption into paychecks also doesn't come easily. So I think we are seeing and will continue to see a bit of a gold-rush mentality in open source, but the exigencies of the open source business models will keep us from falling into the same rut that the Web 2.0 world has.

The thing I worry most about, however, is related to my prior point and involves attempts to shortcut open source. Many see it as a mere marketing gimmick. They provide a certain amount of open source code as a teaser to get someone to buy into the "real" version of their software. This diminishes the value of open source for customers and, in my experience, is the product of too little confidence in the open source model. I don't want customers to come to believe that open source is a new vendor-delivered parlor trick and lose interest.

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

Asay: If by "the next level" you mean widespread adoption, commercial success, and rampant fear within the proprietary vendors, aren't we already there? Seriously, open source has proved its merits as a commercial and development methodology. The only thing remaining is for a few industry laggards to stop consolidating long enough to realize that they have more to gain from open source than lose, but to gain they must act immediately.

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?

Asay: Lesson No. 1: Intellectual property matters. By this I don't mean that the open source world is dismissive of IP claims. Far from it -- we absolutely rely on the integrity of IP in order to thrive.

No, what I mean is that in the open source community, we've been so intent on changing the world and how it buys IP that we've forgotten just how threatening this can be to the incumbent vendors. They've started to sharpen their knives (witness all of Microsoft's FUD), and the counterinsurgency is becoming ever-more sophisticated. Good code alone won't win this fight.

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

Asay: Everything would be licensed under an OSI-approved license, and preferably only a very few: MPL, L/GPL, and Apache. We'd compete on the basis of serving customers, not on our acumen in locking them in.

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?

Asay: We have a long way to go before open source is "perfect." Until we reach that point, I'd like everyone haggling vociferously. It's when we all agree that it will be time to get suspicious.

For the moment, I just want to see Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, and IBM develop their own vibrant corners of the open source universe. I want them at the table as full participants. This will require them to change some aspects of their business, but I think they'd find them revelatory rather than ruinous. These are some of the smartest companies on the planet. I'd love to see the open source communities they could create, if they but wanted to do so.

Roundtable home page: The state of open source

Other roundtable participants
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
Robert Sutor
Vice president of open source and standards, IBM
Zack Urlocker
Vice president of products, MySQL

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.