May 2008


I’ve been a little out of touch lately – crazy accounting project for school – but was able to carve out a little time to chat with the guys at Engine Yard who are doing some cool things with Ruby.Engine Yard employs Evan Phoenix, the founder of the Rubinius project. The project aims to deliver a virtual machine for Ruby and will be previewing Rails running on Rubinius at RailsConf 2008 later today.

According to Evan, Rubinius is an implementation of a Ruby platform, just like the standard Ruby interpreter, IronRuby, MacRuby, JRuby, or countless other implementations. What’s interesting is that since Ruby doesn’t really have a specification, it’s difficult to say that platform xyz is not a compatible implementation of a Ruby runtime. In response, Rubinius decided to create a test suite that could help standardize Ruby as a language across the growing number of VM implementations for Ruby. The test suite is available at RubSpec.org. According to Evan, many of the other implementations are using the test suite. I can see this leading to a formal standards body (a la the JCP, but without one vendor with overwhelming control) to guide the Ruby language. A standardization process would be good news for enterprise customers that want to reduce vendor lock-in.

As an aside, an interesting thing about the Rubinius project is that anyone can get commit access after submitting one patch. While the project is sponsored by Engine Yard, they don’t appear to be controlling commit access (ah, this would make Josh happy ;-). As a result, there are over 150 committers to Rubinius, some of whom are very active and others who have submitted only a few patches.

It’ll be interesting to watch the Ruby community mature and see if Rubinius’ truly open governance model will catch on with other early OSS projects (or rather, with the companies that back these projects).

I just read Mary Jo Foley’s post titled: “Ozzie: Open source a more disruptive competitor than Google”. In it, she quotes Microsoft’s Ray Ozzie as saying:

“Microsoft has built up a culture of crisis,” Ozzie told conference attendees.

Competitors like his former employer, Lotus, and now, Google, have spurred the company to make changes to its business to stay ahead, Ozzie said. But while Google is a “tremendously strong competitor,” Ozzie acknowledged, “open source was much more potentially disruptive” to Microsoft’s business. (He noted that, unlike Google, many open-source programmers aren’t beholden to shareholders.)

Open source a larger threat to Microsoft than Google? I’m not buying it. (I keep thinking about FJS’s comment on 3 good days for Microsoft.) I’m not even buying that OSS is a threat; it’s a huge opportunity (more on this in another post).

I am buying that Ozzie would make this statement in order to elevate the focus on OSS inside of Microsoft. As Ozzie states, “Microsoft has built up a culture of crisis”, so when your Chief Software Architect says xyz is worrisome in public, the internal implications are profound. Depending on the press that this (simple) statement from Ozzie gets, it would seem that the lives of Sam Ramji et al just got a little easier. As much as Sam et al work to convince the market that there is a role for Microsoft in the OSS world, the other part of their day is spent driving change internally. I think Sam’s team should buy Ray a few drinks for making this comment ;-).

I’ve always been of the opinion that the OSS community underestimates Microsoft too much. It seems that Microsoft isn’t making the same mistake (anymore). As Mary Jo states:

Ozzie said that competing with open source “made Microsoft a much stronger company.”

Fun times ahead.

I just spent some time looking at Apatar, a company that’s offering an extract, transform, load (ETL) and data integration solution under the GPL (with commercial support subscriptions available also).

The really cool thing is that Apatar provides a visual designer and mapping tool in order to hide the complexity of ETL and data integration from the typical (business) user. Come to think of it, Apatar reminds me of Yahoo! Pipes on steroids.

Users have the ability to create, re-use and share, data transformations and output to RSS feeds

According to their website, Apatar provides connectivity to data residing in SalesForce.com, SugarCRM, MySQL, Oracle, MS Excel, MS SQL Server, MS Access, GoldMine, Sybase, PostgreSQL, CSV, Compiere ERP, XML, RSS, ATOM, FTP, POP3, LDAP, WebDav, any JDBC data sources, Amazon S3, Flickr, and more.

Judging by the data sources supported, Apatar is going after LOBs and more technical users. I like to think of myself as a LOB at heart, so tools like this are near and dear to my heart. I’ve always believed that access to data is what every LOB user is after. Give me loads of data and tools to make sense of it and I’ll be able to make better decisions. Or so the story goes…

Give it a shot and let us know what you think.

Interesting commentary from Microsoft’s Jason Matusow and Doug Mahugh, and IBM’s Bob Sutor on today’s announcement that Microsoft will support read/write to ODF 1.1 in Office 2007 SP2.

Jason writes:

“For years, I have vocally disagreed with the notion of a single document format as being the answer – the oft quoted Highlander line, “there can be only one.” My reason for this is very simple – document formats are representative of the innovation in the applications that use them. If you mandate a single document format – or even worse, a single version of a document format – you are effectively saying that you want to constrain application innovation to the limitations of a given format. I think this is bad news for consumers and producers of technology alike.”

Doug writes:

“Third-party translators. We anticipate that some developers may want to take over the default ODF load and save paths, so that they can plug in their own translators for ODF, and we’ll be providing an API in SP2 that enables this scenario. This means that if a developer disagrees with the details of our approach and would like to implement ODF for Office in a different way, they’re free to do so and can set it up such that when a user opens an ODT attached to an email or from their desktop, it will be loaded through their ODF code path.”

Bob writes:

“ODF has made tremendous strides over the years but a lingering question has always been “What about Microsoft?”. Despite gestures involving converters and because of their heavy handed promotion of their own alternative OOXML/Open XML format, the ODF victory did feel like it was getting closer but was still tantalizingly in the future.”

I would generally agree with Jason’s views that a “there can be only one” approach is a losing strategy for software vendors. However, I think there’s a difference in choice of implementation and the products delivered on top vs. a choice of the underlying standards themselves. I want choices in the mobile phones/PDAs I can purchase; I don’t want to choose between GSM and CDMA. I want choices in the high definition DVDs that I can purchase; I don’t want to choose between HD DVD and BluRay. I want choices in the websites that I visit or the browser I use to visit them; I don’t want to choose between TCPIP and something else. On the other hand, Jason’s view on constraining innovation based on the format selected does have merit. Tough call…at least for me on this one.

I do like that Microsoft is going to allow other ODF translators to replace the native translator. Good to see Microsoft becoming more open every day.

I just posted this as a comment to Josh’s reply to my reply to his JavaOne 2008 pitch:

Josh, come on dude, you’re lumping me in with VCs now?? ;-)

About 1.5 years ago, I used to argue that a project isn’t “a true OSS project” if there isn’t an open community with input and control spread across multiple unrelated entities. I used to hold Apache projects or kernel.org as the gold standard. But then I looked around at OSS vendors that the market held up as poster children. I discussed/argued this notion of “true OSS project” with JBossians. In the end, I realized that single-vendor controlled communities were going to be the rule, not the exception. But I guess you’re suggesting that even when there is a single vendor in control of the project, the vendor can choose to concede some power to the community?

I agree with you 100%. The companies that I list are financially successful, but, relatively speaking, less successful at building a community. As you point out, this has a lot to do with adding financial targets to the open source business model equation. It’s interesting you mention that some of these companies have reached out to you and others for advice on growing OSS communities.

I truly want to believe that the majority of OSS vendors will choose to be more open to third party input and thereby drive a more vibrant community around their projects. However, I need to be convinced that any of the larger OSS vendors will choose to change their business practices. And if these more well known OSS vendors aren’t about to go “truly open” (whatever that means ;-) , it’s unlikely that a VC-backed OSS startup is going to risk losing control of their OSS project.

Let me put my business hat on and play devils advocate: Why exactly do larger OSS vendors need to encourage a more vibrant community around their single-vendor controlled OSS project than what they already have? These leading OSS vendors will continue to drive community traction as new users seek OSS solutions and turn to “the leaders”. More importantly, these OSS vendors are faced with the challenge of converting an already large group of users into paying customers. Does growing the community pie to a larger number truly impact the slice that is willing to pay? It can’t hurt…but does it help in the near term (i.e. the duration over which their revenue targets are most relevant)?

Now let’s see if any of the leading OSS vendors choose to implement strategies to grow their communities by becoming “more open”. Stranger things have happened ;-)

Last week I learned that Sun has put its 3 database groups (Java DB, MySQL, PostgreSQL) under Marten Mickos. First off, who knew Sun had such a broad database portfolio???? Second, smart move putting them all under Marten.

In speaking with Marten’s Java DB team I gave them a small nugget of advice that has served us incredibly well with WebSphere Application Server Community Edition (WAS CE). Simply put win with the strengths of the family, not individual products.

I’ve written about customers wanting choice and flexibility and the challenges of trying to position any product, OSS or not, as the answer to every problem. As a result, we’ve shifted from competing with WAS CE by itself to competing with WAS CE as an integral member of the WebSphere family of app servers. The results speak for themselves. Today, some customers use WAS CE alone, and others use WAS CE and then move up to the broader WebSphere app server family. A growing number are using WAS CE and the broader WebSphere app server family together to achieve different things within the same project. By bringing the family to the table we are able to win deals that start with either WAS CE or any member of the WebSphere app server family.

Sun has a similar opportunity. If the customer wants an embeddable Java database, Sun has Java DB. If the customer is looking for a really easy to use database for web-based CRUD apps, Sun has MySQL. If the customer is looking for a higher-end database or looking to replace some Oracle instances, Sun has PostgreSQL. Positioning the three options to go after three different usage situations will help reduce confusion. It also prevents a “one size fits all” mentality, which customers rarely subscribe to. The challenge for Marten and team is to tie the family message together by making it easier to use all three databases together in a larger application/project. This will be a critical step to ensuring that a MySQL customer can also be sold Java DB etc. Common tooling (to the degree possible) will go a long way towards making the family story a reality.

Good luck guys. Win with the family.

I had an interesting discussion with Marten Mickos at JavaOne last week that I’ve been meaning to blog about.

I was disappointed that MySQL decided to put encryption and compression backup into MySQL Server (GPL license), versus including those features only in MySQL Enterprise (commercial license). Most of you will recall the outrage from “the community” that began when MySQL considered adding these enterprisey features only inside of MySQL Enterprise.

I wanted to discuss this situation with Marten.

I do not believe that Support and/or Monitoring around an OSS product are viable long term value propositions that will convince users to become, and stay, buyers. This has more to do with human nature than OSS leaders have yet acknowledged. Sure you’ll get some portion of your users to pay for Support etc., (which I call Category “C” users). But good luck growing beyond that group.

I know that Simon will disagree. During his JavaOne pitch, Simon mentioned that Sun is benefiting from a large number of adoption-led deals. However, I’ve spoken to many customers who are saying “we bought support for 2 years and realized we just didn’t use it as much as we thought. Also, with the source code being available, my software developers can support our use of product XYZ internally”. It could be that Simon is seeing Category “C” users still and will sing a different tune when trying to convert Category “B” users.

I’d suggest that the MySQL decision described above highlights challenges of trying to grow an OSS business faster than the rate of customer conversion from Category “C” users.

The solution I favor is to sell products that can’t be obtained in any way but through payment. MySQL was walking down this path before “the community” had its say.

Marten reassured me that MySQL may yet decide to add features only inside of MySQL Enterprise (and not in the open source MySQL Server) in the future. I fear that MySQL will be faced with the same outrage from “the community” if and when they try to make this change. This will help proprietary vendors maintain the feature/function gap vs. OSS vendors. Recall that for the majority of single-vendor backed OSS products, there is virtually no cost savings vs. developing closed-source software. To close the feature/function gap, OSS vendors need faster revenue growth to fund this development expense.

The OSS vendor community needs leaders who will stand up to “the community” and make the tough business decisions needed to ensure that OSS isn’t relegated to a small revenue slice of the software industry pie.

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