Position Paper

The Open Door is Not Closing –But will it take you where you want to go?

With special thanks to Bill Murray, Simon Wardley & Gil Yehuda for all their help.

Some say software is eating the world, and open is eating software. But is that really the case? In 2012, LEF published a report covering the importance of open source and the emerging open approaches in other areas, such as open hardware, data, ecology, etc. Eight years have gone by, the environment has changed, and since open is more important than ever, we are revisiting the topic with a new position paper. It looks at case examples, studies incentives behind open initiatives examines what worked and what did not, and highlights the sometimes-unexpected consequences of opening a solution.

The Open Door is Not Closing –But will it take you where you want to go?

The paper also provides guidelines for analyzing the health of open source projects you are consuming, because some of them come with known risks such as project sustainability. It is not our intent to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt, but rather to remind readers that some critical projects are created by a small number of people, and therefore are highly vulnerable to disruptions and need to be used with reasonable risk mitigation practices, which often involve you making some sort of contribution. Moreover, open source is not a monolithic movement. It consists of many different projects, with various and often contradictory goals and aspirations. We have distinguished four different categories that reflect why projects are created in the first place, and the biggest threats they face:

  • Endowment projects are released to serve some sort of purpose – for example, some (such as Open Source Ecology) contribute to the general improvement of our societal situation. Their openness acts as a collaboration catalyst. By making donations such as money and work ever easier, project owners hope to build a movement that makes a tangible impact. Some of these projects are focused on user freedoms, while others, quite the contrary, prevent certain organizations from using their solutions. What these projects have in common is that they all rely on donations and can be easily starved if donors’ attention shifts elsewhere.
  • Neutralizers aim to take power away from organizations that control certain areas through their proprietary products. Though these may claim rare skills, unique know-how or sophisticated solutions, if the owner pushes too hard to maximize its profits or gets an advantage that is perceived as unfair, adopters may create an open alternative that will be used in negotiations; sometimes that alternative is good enough to push the original provider out of the business. There are multiple threats in this category – the biggest is that it is easy to think your businessprotecting constraints are candidates for neutralization, and, unwittingly, increase competition in your own market.
  • Research projects are very similar to endowment ones, with the difference that they are focused on building knowledge in a space where it is known to be insufficient. They aim to draw together collective brainpower and remove barriers to collaboration and experimentation. That brings unexpected consequences. For example, closed solutions can be as good as open ones (consider what GitHub is doing for the open source world), and seemingly inferior but more money-efficient solutions enable broader experimentation within the same budget. And because of the highly uncertain revenues, financing is usually provided by the state or the academic world, less often by a company or group of companies that intend to benefit from the research. All research projects are threatened by budget cuts, providers of proprietary solutions that are not so money-efficient, and approaches that rely on data mining and reduce the demand for brainpower.
  • Finally, there is the broad category of Gambit projects, which, as in chess, are associated with giving something for free and hoping to get revenue elsewhere. The assumption is that the ‘gift’ is so heavily connected to ‘revenue elsewhere’ that the other party is not fully aware of all the consequences of the transaction. Thus the biggest threat comes from the connection workaround – if your open source software requires computing power which you happen to sell, you may get competition that adapts the same software to work with different computing power providers; if you sell physical components relying on rare earth metals, and you release a lot of know-how about using them, the chance is that somebody will match your know-how with an alternative that does not require rare earth metals.

Figure 1 – The four categories of open source projects

Figure 1 – The four categories of open source projects

This categorization demonstrates a correlation between the market situation, project set-up and intended benefits. Not all open approaches are applicable in all circumstances; on the contrary, the number of possible plays is quite limited.

Not all open approaches are applicable in all circumstances; on the contrary, the number of possible plays is quite limited.

The full paper contains case examples and highlights external drivers that could make or break a project. If you are:

  • thinking about changing the market by introducing a new, open solution
  • intending to adopt a popular framework
  • just wondering what your competition is trying to achieve with its open solution
  • are directly affected by the conflict between an open source provider and a cloud provider

– then you are likely to find in the paper an example that is relevant to your financing model, intended outputs and market situation, and will help you to assess the potential consequences and prepare yourself accordingly. Do you know how open source shapes your organization?

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