A reader of my blog, Christopher Murray, sparked a thought through his comment in my post about the iJoomla magazine framework (for the Joomla content management system) and how there is a huge gap between lower end, open source CMS’es and enterprise-class ones…which made me think of what the primary catalyst (i.e., the cup o’ gasoline) could be on the embers of innovation in open source.
Every week I am stunned and delighted anew with some miscellaneous open source offering that has phenomenal functionality, a strong ecosystem of development surrounding it, and amazing fit-n-finish for free software. If you want to see for yourself, just go to Sourceforge and poke around the nearly 121,000 open source projects that are linked to from there. The power and capability that is yours for free is nothing short of astounding.
This is why, for example, all the VC’s that John Furrier interviews for his informative and highly interesting PodTech podcasts seem to share a common thread: if you’re a startup and don’t have both open source software being leveraged or have an offshore component in your business plan, don’t bother knockin’ on our door (I’m paraphrasing alot…but you catch the drift). The value that is being created with so many of these projects is so high that there isn’t a capitalist in his or her right mind that would want to fund development of what already exists.
Here’s a real world example. I’m advising on the buildout of a new Web asset for a client and there are some chinks-in-the-armor of open source that exposes just what Christoper pointed out: there’s a big gap between the low-end, easy stuff and the high-end, hard stuff that enterprise commercial software fixes. My client is using Joomla’s CMS and are incorporating WordPress for blogging (via the Joomla WordPress connector), ecommerce (via OSCommerce connector), and are exploring forums and a learning management system (LMS) (there are forums like phpBB and SMF…as well as incredible LMS’es like Moodle). Making all this stuff work together and take on the same look-n-feel isn’t trivial…regardless of how many extensions are available from the Joomla developer ecosystem to kinda, sorta deliver functionality.
This presents me with a dark side to my happy-assed optimism about all these projects: why isn’t this stuff plug-n-play…and what would happen if it was?
Using a variety of open source packages together is a friggin’ nightmare. Can they kinda, sorta be glue’ed together? The answer is yes…but EVERY administration interface is different; the way they are templated or use cascading style sheets works discretely and independently of each other; and therefore it’s incredibly difficult to have a combinatorial footprint that you can train business people to use.
It’s fine if you’re large organization that can afford a dedicated, full-time I.T. staff dedicated to supporting an open source footprint and have an organizational training team behind them. That’s just not the case with most <$100M companies I know (and where the bulk of jobs and future growth in the global economy exists). The people within these firms are so overloaded they couldn’t begin to climb-the-learning-curve on multiple packages, install them, coordinate the various versions of them so they’re in sync (and look like one, seamless Web asset), and then train the non-technical business users on how to make them function in daily use.
An old mentor of mine once told me (when we were talking about new business opportunities and where to focus), “You can do the hot, easy stuff and do it well…for a time. But your competitive advantage will go away eventually. Or you can do the really hard stuff (hot or not) and make it easy and while your potential competitors are trying to figure out how you did that, you’re already at phase 2, 3 and beyond. THAT is a sustainable competitive advantage.“
Doing the hard stuff well and making it easy is what I believe is needed to make the open source category soar. Click-n-configure, plug-n-play, however you want to term it…providing the building blocks that fit together is what is critical to making its use mainstream and is, of course, the hard part. Why is there not a standard set of user interface admin and presentation standards that point the way for open source projects? I know it’s incredibly challenging to manage-by-committee and that it’s a group effort to start and build a project, but it’s the current and potential users out here that are befuddled and unable to leap the formidable barriers that disjointed and disparate approaches to admin and presentation that open source projects present to us.
I get into debates often on the merits of open source vs. commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software with people and get hammered on about my view with comments like, “Well Borsch…that’s why COTS exists and works! We focus and deliver what the customer wants and needs.” COTS companies deliver what customers need and they make it as simple as they are capable of doing.
The kicker with COTS is that those of us in the industry are seemingly the only ones who understand why proprietary approaches eventually fail unless artificially propped up by government or other protectionist measures. Freedom isn’t just a political term…spreading freedom should also include catalysts that spark innovation, create freedom with choice, encourage risk (and spread it around like open source facilitates) and build value upon which we can all leverage and create ever increasingly valuable propositions (NOTE: this paragraph is my primary argument when people talk about open source advocates as “communists” or not caring about jobs or capitalism. To that I say “bullshit…if you want to invest in re-building the wheel and the horse’s harness feel free…I’ll invest in this guy Henry Ford who figured out how to leverage what was already there and build a new assembly model that exploded the market).
Enough pontificating. Let me end with this: a baby step toward streamlining open source use has already been taken by a commercial software provider that has introduced a hosting company tool called Fantastico. I love this product at my hoster since I can — with just a couple of clicks and boxes filled in — automagically install a wide array of open source packages (CMS, blog, wiki, ecommerce, LMS, etc.). Where I used to have to download a Zip file, change a bunch of config files and then upload the whole shebang to my hosting company, it’s now a no-brainer to install or remove an entire instance!
But that’s where the easy part stops. The next step is to go in, learn the administration piece and set it up, and then iterate/iterate/iterate and iterate some more until it’s ready for use. Oh…and integrating it into a site requires ALOT of effort or experience with the framework (e.g., Joomla) into which you’re incorporating the package.
Where’s the Cup o’ Gasoline?
Based on my own experience in the small to midsize business (and enterprise) spaces, there is NO question in my mind that a coordinated, comprehensive, admin and presentation layer effort on standards everyone would write to would kickstart open source faster — and be the cup o’ gasoline to streamline or eliminate the hard part of providing open source with increasing and ongoing competitive advantages to commercial software.
Right now, it’s just too hard for those most in need and those most likely to use open source software.