March 11, 2005
Should Groove Have Gone Open Source?

Andrew from Blogging on the Free Web asks whether I discussed taking Groove open source with Ray Ozzie prior to the Microsoft acquisition. Unfortunately, one of the constraints of working in the proprietary world is the loss of liberty to be open about the details of business transactions (at least until I write my memoirs). Part of the joy of open source by the way is that it permits, if not virtually requires, a degree of transparency that is congruent with my approach to life and business.

What I can say is that I have consistently had substantive conversations over the past several years whenever the opportunity presented itself to discuss open source opportunities involving ALL of the companies I've made investments in and have at one time or another had board seats on. This includes Real Networks, Groove Networks, and Linden Lab (which makes Second Life, an increasingly popular virtual world).

There are advantages to going open source as well as challenges. In some cases it may even be necessary to forestall a competitive threat, i.e., do it before it is done to you. When I see businesses whose strategies involve defending a class of business model which is simply going to be obsolete going forward, my heart sinks about all the wasted effort.

Caveat altert: In a transitional era like the one we are in now, it is notable that it's harder to convert a code base developed in a proprietary context to be open source than it is to start from scratch for the same reason renovating a house completely is harder than new construction. Trust me if you haven't been through this. I have. This is one of the reasons it took seven years from the day Netscape announced it was going to open source the Mozilla browser to get to Firefox 1.0.

It typically requires a complete overhaul of the code and the development process, which is much harder than starting from scratch. Typically, the existing code base is not one which is amenable to community development. There is major code re-factoring and rewriting to be done, rethinking and reworking of API's, switching to open standards, and changing of the tool set to use transparent, community-oriented tools for source code management, issue and bug tracking, build status, knowledge base, and synchronous messaging.

On top of this, it requires investment to build a developer community and potentially much more investment to create a perception of trustworthiness.

Going the open source route ought to be considered but it is not always really viable given the resources at hand.

Posted by mitch@osafoundation.org at March 11, 2005 03:13 PM
Comments

Your points are well taken, Mitch. However, some decisions made by for-profit entities like Groove are made without adequately considering the impact on not-for-profit entities. My friend Sanjana Hattotuwa has used Groove extensively in his peacebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka. How will Microsoft's purchase affect his initiative? Probably significantly, and perhaps for the worse (e.g., increasing integration into Microsoft products may move Groove even further away from reasonable wide-spread deployment in the developing world.) As the non-profit sector begins to rely on technology more and more it should think seriously about building on an open source foundation, because those tools will continue to be available independent of whatever mergers and acquisitions take place. The better model for technological dissemination and evolution at the highest level of global penetration (levels we probably haven't even seen yet) is probably one with a public good orientation, not a private profit perspective.

Posted by: Colin Rule [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 14, 2005 04:06 PM

Mitch,

What does the future look like for commercial for-profit software companies (ISVs)? ...especially smaller, emerging software companies that are facing free/open source competition in their software category.

What is your advice? What references would you recommend reading?

Is it possible for a software company to be based on one of the free source/open source business models and still operate on a for-profit basis (with a business plan that is based on more than just a support and services model)?

Michael Herman
Founder and CTO
Parallelspace Corporation
http://www.parallelspace.net

Posted by: Michael Herman (Parallelspace) [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 2, 2005 07:29 AM