August 2008


As China’s appetite for technological advancement through acquisition grows, will we see a global Chinese-based software vendor emerge?

I’m reading a really interesting book titled “China Shakes The World” by James Kynge, ex-China bureau chief for the Financial Times.  I’m about three-quarters through it and would recommend picking it up.

One of the points that Kynge make that struck a cord is how China is going about acquiring technical know-how.  This knowledge ranges from steel making, to fine cloth manufacturing to engine design.  In all of these cases, instead of using R&D to develop the technologies required, China is simply purchasing companies that have this knowledge.  Kynge writes:

“The difference between China’s technological emergence and that of developed countries is that it is driven not so much by research as by commerce.  Chinese companies, by and large, derive their technologies by buying them, by copying them or by encouraging a foreign partner to transfer them as part of the price for access to a large potential market”.

Kynge starts off the book with an example of one of Germany’s largest steel mill being dismantled, packed, shipped and reassembled in China.  The process involved 250,000 tonnes of equipment and 40 tonnes of documentation on how to put it all back together.  Just think about how amazing, crazy and scary that is.

Reading this book I couldn’t help but think about how dramatically the software landscape could change if China were to get serious about (open source) software.  With piracy rates sky-high and IP legislation and enforcement in its infancy, the rise of China’s open source dragon is still far off in the horizon.  But I think we’ll see strong IP protection in China in my lifetime.  I’d go on a limb and guess that it will take 20 years. During this same time, I also expect China to grow its ability to build global Chinese brands.

The combination of strong IP protection and experience building strong global Chinese brands will pave the road for large IP-based (i.e. software) companies and industries in China.  Throw in the countless engineers graduating from Chinese universities yearly, and a 20 year horizon for a global Chinese-based software company doesn’t seem outlandish.

An acquisition of a global software company such as SAP could jump start the Chinese global software industry.  The use of the open source business model or SaaS could be effective in side-stepping the issue of software piracy in China.

What do you think?  Will we see a global Chinese software company in the next 20 years?  Will it be using some form of the open source business model?

A little while back I’d picked up on Roberto’s thinking around open source IP being protected by the anti-piracy organization, BSA.  I asked if we’d ever see pure play open source companies, such as WS02, joining the BSA.  WS02’s Paul Fremantle commented that this would not be necessary because WSO2’s code is available for free under the Apache 2.0 license.

Paul makes an extremely valid point.  Because WSO2 is using the liberal Apache license, users, ISVs and SIs can do virtually whatever they want with the code itself. However, if we were talking about a GPL’d product (i.e. Alfresco), we could once again see a role for the BSA.  If an ISV takes Alfresco code makes proprietary modifications and begins to ship a closed source product ABC, then ABC is violating Alfresco’s license, i.e. GPLv2, and Alfresco Co.’s intellectual property is being infringed.

In retrospect, I should have kept my examples to non-BSD-based open source licenses when asking if we’d see open source companies join the BSA.

Another question that surfaced during a discussion with a friend at school is how to stop “open source support piracy” (I’m sure there is a better name for this, but I can’t think of one at this moment).  In the open source world, where the code is available for free, “piracy” occurs when a customer purchases support for X number servers and runs Y>>X copies of the product, generally for a different application than those running on the X servers.  The customer then funnels any support inquiries that arise on the Y servers, through the support for the X servers.  Open source vendors try to address this through support contracts that allow a limited number of named contacts who can log a support issue.  At the end of the day, vendors must rely on the honesty of their users.

Clearly, the “open source support piracy” issue is not wholly different than traditional “piracy” in the closed source world. But in the closed source world, there is a concerted effort, however (in)effective to stop piracy.  In the open source world, there isn’t much discussion about how to curtail “open source support piracy”.  Maybe it is not as rampant as traditional software piracy?  Or maybe we’re still too early in the lifecycle of paid open source usage to chase down “open source support piracy”?

We’re travelling this week to Egypt for a good friend’s wedding.

I was looking forward to seeing and/or hearing about the use of open source in a country like Egypt.  I paid special attention to the systems in use at the airport at the EgyptAir airline office and at the Hotels we stayed at.

Over and over I kept seeing native Windows (Win32) applications.  I talked to several of the Egyptian-national wedding guests if they’d heard about “open source or Linux”.  The answer, “no, what is that?”  These guests are all white-collared upper-middle-class folks.  Many of them are in knowledge worker roles.  Two were in IT functions in Windows-based shops.

Next, I noticed that Internet access is extremely costly here.  Also, finding Internet access outside of your (western) hotel is extremely difficult.  This, and a short conversation with two hotel porters, leads me to believe that Internet-based apps have yet to find a foothold in the Egyptian market.

After seeing the prevalence of native Win-32 applications and the low penetration of Internet-based apps, I wasn’t surprised that open source awareness appears low.  But that’s okay.  As Internet penetration grows, and the Native Win-32 applications commonplace in Egypt will need to be replaced or augmented.  When this happens, the awareness of open source software will need to be significantly higher.

Maybe open source software awareness is high in Egypt today?  Maybe my friend’s wedding guests are just late adopters?

It was intrigued when a press release titled “over 8500 testers in more than 130 countries” was emailed to us.

uTest has released a SaaS-based global marketplace for testing web applications.  uTest estimates that over 10% of folks performing a QA/testing function have signed up as a member of the uTest community.  The uTest community is split mainly India (32%), USA (27%) and the UK (9%).  The service is being positioned as a compliment to internal testing resources, rather than a replacement.

Have a web application that needs (further) testing? Head on over to uTest, provide a link to the app, select a tester profile based on skills, demographics, etc., and you’re ready to go. uTest offers on-demand and annual pricing options.

According to the uTest website, over 4,335 bugs have been discovered by the uTest community of professional testers.

Using the community to do more than could be done with one company’s own resources is a key tenant of the open source development model.  However, unlike the open source development model, uTesters stop after they’ve found a bug since they don’t have the source code to fix the bugs that they discover.

I can see pros and cons for companies not sharing the source code for applications tested on uTest.

What do you think? Is uTest another step towards companies opening up their source code to an online community in an effort to produce better code with fewer resources?

BusinessWeek has a surprisingly non-hype-laden story about open source today.  Very cool to see that more of the media is coming around to the points I’ve been making for a few years now.  Specifically, while I’m a believer in open source driving customer value, I have never seen it as a panacea.  I’ve always argued against oft-quoted myths about why the open source business model will crush the traditional software business model.

It’s refreshing to read quotes from open source leaders who “get it” because they’re living through the challenges of converting “Category B” users.

Marten Mickos is quoted in the BW story:

“Open source is not a get-rich-quick scheme. You have to have patience.”

While Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst is quoted:

“There’s a concern that our growth rate will slow. We’ve been in that funk the last couple of years.”

Frankly speaking, I’m quite excited about the following comments from Whitehurst re. Red Hat:

…is shifting engineers and marketers away from nice-to-have projects toward areas where Red Hat gets paid. He’s pulling resources out of consumer desktop Linux, and he shuttered an online store that sold other companies’ open-source programs. “I took a look at that and said, ‘We’re not eBay,'” he says. “Red Hat is open source, but that doesn’t mean we do everything in open source.”

Whitehurst is definitely making the tough decisions to help Red Hat’s business grow.  It appears he’s leaving the philosophical discussion about the virtues of open source to someone else.

I’ll leave you with a final Whitehurst quote.  I’m taking it to be completely supportive of my call to OSS vendors to sell products, not just support and services around a freely available OSS product:

“A pure service business is not particularly defensible. Some open-source companies have not truly figured that out.”

I may not have been invited to dinner with Whitehurst, but he seems to think very much along the lines that I do.  Very cool.  My mom will be quite proud. lol :-)

Disclaimer – I am not a lawyer.  Check out what Matt, a lawyer, has to say.

Very cool news that a US federal appeals court has ruled that open source code in Jacobsen v. Katzer is subject to copyright laws.  A lower court had found that copyright law didn’t apply.  However, the appeals court reversed that decision.  The decision lays the foundation for future open source license infringements to be brought as copyright infringement claims instead of breach of contract claims.  This is important because (b-school coming in handy!) remedies under copyright law are more severe than under contract law.

BTW, Roberto was arguing that the Business Software Alliance (BSA) should also help protect open source products, since they are copyrighted products also.  The federal ruling strengthens Roberto’s case.  Although, as an alliance of predominately closed-source software vendors, the BSA may not jump onto Roberto’s bandwagon.  Although, it begs the question, why aren’t there any open source companies on the BSA?  Where are you Red Hat, Sun, Alfresco, WSO2, Hyperic, etc?

Randall Kennedy’s blog at InfoWorld writes:

“Matthew Paul Thomas – a long-time critic of FOSS user interfaces in general, and Linux in particular – lamenting the lack of usability in FOSS projects.”

Here’s Matthew’s list of 15 reasons why FOSS projects lack usability:

  1. Weak incentives for usability
  2. Few good designers
  3. Design suggestions often aren’t invited or welcomed
  4. Usability is hard to measure
  5. Coding before design
  6. Too many cooks
  7. Chasing tail-lights
  8. Scratching their own itch
  9. Leaving little things broken
  10. Placating people with options
  11. Fifteen pixels of fame
  12. Design is high-bandwidth, the Net is low-bandwidth
  13. Release early, release often, get stuck
  14. Mediocrity through modularity
  15. Gated development communities

I’d urge you to read Matthew’s original post as it offers ideas on how to address the usability issues he raises.

For the set of open source projects that are truly developer driven, and don’t rely on a vendor with profit motives, some, or all of Matthew’s list could apply.  But how many of us truly interact with software from this category?  However, even in this case, examples such as Mozilla, as Matthew points out, make use of usability and design experts.

For the vast majority of open source products that you and I use, there is a vendor or group of vendors behind the related open source project.  As such, usability and design experts employed by the vendor behind the open source product are able to impact the final product.  Scratching an itch, placating people with options and leaving little things broken aren’t encouraged when there is revenue on the table and you’re being paid to work on a product.  In a vendor sponsored open source project, the 15 reasons that Matthew lists could probably be applied equally for closed source and open source products.

However, some vendor-backed open source projects started out as a group of developers scratching an itch.  Could these projects suffer from Matthew’s list of 15?  Adding vendor backing to the project could address future design issues, but some issues would simply be carried forward with every release.  Maybe this is more relevant to established open source products/vendors.  Vendors behind new (i.e. past 2-5 yrs?) OSS products simply leveraged the open source business model but employed designers etc from day one.

I’m torn. I could argue that Matthew is wholly off the mark for vendor-backed projects, or that he may be on to something (because of how these projects were first created).

What do you think?

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