How open source is changing the face of business

I’ve been thinking deeply about the world of open-source software lately, partly because I’ve recently changed jobs and am now working for a “pure play” open-source company – a company that makes its revenue solely by supporting an open-source project.

How open source is changing the face of business

To be sure, I used to work for Sun, teaching students about MySQL, but that was slightly different because Sun actually sold an enterprise version of MySQL and that’s the direction from which a lot of my students came.

Now, my new employer, Cloudera, sells nothing but support and training: although we do have our own version of the product involved, we give that away and contribute any improvements we make to it back to the open-source community.

What I’ve come to realise is that becoming involved with open source really will represent a complete shift of paradigm for many businesses

Now I realise that you’re not reading this column just to find out about my latest employment status, but you might find some of my recent thoughts on the whole open-source business that have been triggered by my change of job interesting.

That’s because I think that many people are stuck in the same mindset that I used to be in – namely, that open-source software is great because it’s free and convenient… but that’s all you can say about it. What I’ve come to realise is that becoming involved with open source really will represent a complete shift of paradigm for many businesses.

The old way of business

To understand what I’m talking about, you need to think about the way companies used to do business. If you were working for MegaCorp Inc and you came up with a revolutionary piece of software to expedite some part of its production process, which saved your company huge amounts of money – say, by achieving something in 20 minutes that used to take 20 hours – then your company would go to the ends of the earth to keep your new method secret.

Very often it wouldn’t even attempt to patent it, because the mere filing of a patent requires that you explain the novel way you’re doing the job, and that could give away the idea to other people simply by reading your application.

Or if the product did get patented, MegaCorp’s legal department would ferociously pursue anyone who produced anything the company deemed to be even remotely similar (a phenomenon we’ve seen a lot of recently over various user interfaces, including the iPhone).

Of course, that’s a perfectly defensible attitude to take: your revolutionary new software product is giving MegaCorp a competitive edge, and if the people at UltraCorp get wind of how you’re doing things they could replicate it and then you’d be competing on a level playing field again.

This is the way that business has been conducted pretty well ever since the Industrial Revolution – build a better mousetrap and sell the heck out of it until someone else trumps you by building an even better mousetrap. Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.

Over the past few years, however, the open-source movement has radically changed the way at least some companies do their business. These companies tend to be the newer ones, less mired in the old mindset, although plenty of venerable institutions have changed tack too.

I’m not just talking here about businesses using open-source software products rather than proprietary ones – although of course that’s nice because it saves them money (who knows how many millions of dollars MySQL has saved companies that use it rather than Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server or whatever).

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