Let me ask you a question. I’m going to assume that at some point over the last twenty years you bought a car. So, how important was the car maker’s use of just-in-time manufacturing to your purchase decision? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it was of no consideration at all.
Well, I think we’re fast approaching the point where open source to software will be like JIT to automotive manufacturing. While it will critical to the producers of software, woven into the fabric of its operations, it will be of no importance at the point of consumption.
As hard as this might be to accept, open source is not a value proposition in its own right. That’s because the market for software is driven by four questions customers ask:
- does the software do what I need it to do (feature bake-off)?
- who will help me when I have a problem with the software?
- who will maintain the software and how much will that cost?
- will I end up being beholden to the software supplier?
Open source is only relevant to the extent that it creates meaningful differences in these categories. But ultimately, customers only care about the differences – not the way it’s been achieved.
This point was brought home to me again in a recent conversation I had with Cheryl McKinnon, Chief Marketing Officer at Nuxeo. As she highlighted to me, Nuxeo endeavours to frame themselves as a viable Enterprise Content Management provider that happens to utilize open source software – not the provider of an open source Enterprise Content Management solution. This marketing approach is not unique to Nuxeo and is based on a pragmatic realization of how customers acquire software. No amount of open source spin is going to compensate for a substandard solution. The product still has to be functionally competitive within its technology category.
And while open source can have a positive impact on support, maintenance and vendor lock-in, those effects are not universally consistent. Different open source projects have different dynamics based on its diversity of code contributors, licensing provisions, and the extent to which support is required and the willingness and availability of a community to do so (just to name a few). These dynamics, in turn, can be effected by the organization which is using the project for their commercial solution. So again, astute customers will not just assume that the existence of an open source license creates better support, maintenance and lock-in conditions. They will drive each individual provider to prove it.
Open source might have a feel-good glow today. But the more enterprises consider open source software the more that glow will fade under serious scrutiny. In that environment, generic open source value statements ultimately provide little meaningful benefit to a software provider. Or worse – they come across as patronizing, mom & apple pie statements. The more that’s recognized the more open source will be banished as a selling proposition by marketers across the industry.
In years to come, open source will be prevalent across the software vendor landscape. But they’ll be selling the sizzle, not the sausage.