What do an interview with Jon "Maddog" Hall and an obituary for a cartoonist have in common? Too much for good open source marketing
Yesterday I found myself reading an interesting interview with Jon “Maddog” Hall in Government Computer News, titled “The Real Cost of Open-Source Software”. In that piece, he was doing a good job of demonstrating how much more economically (in this case) government agencies could deploy their IT budgets on highly skilled software engineers instead of highly expensive software that would still require expensive maintenance.
But then Hall said something that brought the whole effect down, and inevitably reminded me of an obituary that I’d read the same morning. That obituary recounted the passing of a familiar cartoonist, one Rowland B. Wilson, and if you are (how to say diplomatically) of a certain age, you’ll remember him by his most famous series of work. That series was a run of ads some thirty-odd years ago for the New England Life Insurance Company, and always featured two characters. The first would be standing or seated comfortably, with a self-satisfied look on his face. The second would have a horrified look on his face as he watched a wrecking ball, enormous safe, or perhaps a run-away train rushing to annihilate his smug friend, who was always uttering the punch line. Which was, “My insurance company? Why New England Life, of course.” (badda-boom!)
So what could that possibly have to do with an interview where a prominent open source proponent is trying to reach across the divide to address the concerns of commercial customers that are used to buying software from large and (seemingly) secure IT companies? Well, you tell me. Here’s the line that was supposed to demonstrate the advantages of open source software:
Open-source code gives you control. If a project leader of a particular open-source project dies, you can make a business decision to switch to something else or hire someone to maintain that package until you’re finished with it. With closed-source software, that business decision is taken away from you.
Ah. Got it. If the project manager dies, and the project team evaporates, I’ll just hire someone off the street to run my mission critical software for me, which I’ll still want to migrate off of eventually anyway.
The point, of course, is that making open source software ubiquitous, like (sadly) anything and everything else in the world, is a matter of marketing. And the first principle of marketing is Know Thy Customer. So yes, it’s true that having a back door to a legacy system dead end issue is reassuring (in a way), but it’s a bit like telling the guy who’s about to be annihilated by the wrecking ball, safe or train: “Good news! You won’t be dead, just a paraplegic!” To switch metaphors, the customer really doesn’t want what’s behind either Door A or Door B.
Instead, what Hall’s quote really does is expose one of the things that open source still needs (and certainly can) work out, which is its willingness to follow Benevolent Dictators. All may indeed be well while the dictator is busy being actively benevolent, but when he or she is busy being retired or dead, its not a great system from the customer’s point of view.
Hopefully, those who don’t like open source won’t think to revive the old Howland Wilson ad formula to dis open source. But open source should spend some time refining the open source model to give customers more of a warm and fuzzy feeling about the long-term viability of the development projects upon which they are being asked to bet their businesses.