Open source is not a new concept, but many organizations still have their doubts about whether or not they should implement it as part of their organizational strategy, or whether they should simply keep it for theoretical discussion in the future.
Why Does It Matter?
The answer is pretty simple: open source is the source of innovation – period.
The wisdom of the engineering community is literally the “wisdom of the crowd” that can create a very powerful “snowball” effect that pushes aside the corporate egos and commercial aspects, to enable collaborative effort in creating new technology. While commercial interests exist behind established alliances, and development efforts funded from the “deep pockets” of scientific and government funds are used by commercial organizations, there are still volunteers spending their nights and weekends trying to move projects forward. Why? Engineers with innovative spirits are on a mission to improve the world. They love what they do and enjoy the contribution. It’s like asking kids why they play online for hours on end – a rhetorical question with the simplest of answers.
Show Me The Money…
I can relate my own experience as part of the open community and a commercial company. MRV implemented an open source strategy back in the nineties. We observed the trend of the Linux community carefully and joined an open source Zebra project. Zebra open source project focused on advanced software architecture to provide a high quality, multi-server routing engine. For us the logic was clear: if we did it organically, it would take too long. If we invested our efforts in an open community, we would gain valuable time-to-market, and be able to leverage open source into a commercial concept in the long run.
That’s always the case with open source strategies; projects start as open source and over time move to closed, commercial packages that ensure the strategy of commercial organizations remains focused on rendering development efforts into revenues.
Is it always one directional with open source moving to commercial software? Not necessarily. There are some interesting examples of commercial companies deciding to open their closed code to the community to expand interest. The goal is to open the code for broader, non-organic development that adds value from new software branches that drive improvements and innovative ideas. Many examples come to mind, but for now I’ll focus on some of the corporate giants:
- OpenSolaris – Sun opened their proprietary Solaris software to the open source distribution and development model. However, the project closed due to corporate transformation. They did achieve moderate success in keeping the project as a viable and living entity over a reasonable period time. In fact, some parts of the OpenSolaris were used by the famous BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing application, so obviously, there was a “free” winner from open effort: the community and us users. But, corporate strategy to make money was not achieved…
- Open Source Java – yep, good example of Sun taking their proprietary software code and making it broadly available by opening all different branches of Java to partners and developers to set up a vast and successful community that makes unprecedented contributions to development efforts. The initial secret motivation behind Sun’s strategy was to focus on Linux distributions such as Debian and Ubuntu, that would integrate Java into their operating systems and move the development environment into new markets.
- IBM is a great example of a commercial company that invested in an open source strategy a long time ago, when they realized that they had to change their old-school business plan. IBM made structural changes and invested heavily in executing this strategy over time, by using thousands of developers that contributed to open source projects, but which was funded by “elsewhere” organizations. So in practicality, you use your own developers as part of operating expenses, but you get money from others to insure your cash is covered… IBM created projects like Eclipse, Apache and their very strategic contribution to Linux and OpenStack projects. Yes, the Linux kernel is possibly the biggest winner of the open source projects, which enabled Big Blue to move on from selling hardware and focus on a new business model of selling services, software and nowadays more and more cloud offerings (hence their strategic involvement in OpenStack and other open source cloud projects) that can be sustained in the future.
Should I move to the big winner example? Yep, you guessed it – there has to be a happy ending to this story – Google Android… The mobile operating system, based on Linux kernel that has a phenomenal market share of ~80% of mobile devices and is now moving into broader adaption for IoT, smart cars and almost any derivative you can imagine.
In fact, Android was developed by Android Inc, a startup that was acquired by Google. This is a great example of code that moved to open source due to Google’s visionary strategy. Open source was important because it gave carriers and manufacturers confidence that Google wouldn’t have absolute power over the Android platform. By establishing an Open Handset Alliance – a consortium of hardware, software, and telecommunication companies to advance open standards for mobile devices – the magic happened, over time with very successful results. Open source prevailed with commercial interests, but nothing could be done as fast in any closed and proprietary model.
Telecommunications Market Revolution
Software is eating the telecom market. This is a statement of fact. The old-school telecom organizations are confused by what’s happening with the Over-The-Top “T-shirt” young guys that are open, agile and have successful mindsets, and of course successful business models…
If you have heard of Truman’s law, he said: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them…” Well, with the abundance of options available today, many telecommunication companies are convinced that they need to change, but are confused about how to do it. They desperately need guidance on how to make strategic transformation without moving to chapter 11 in the next 10 years.
One of the world’s largest telecommunications companies that started an outrageous transformation was AT&T. Many articles have been written about their plans and their corporate vision to make the change using a top-down model, but behind the ambition, lay a longer term plan, which was to build a collaborative community that would help them to transition and avoid internal confusion about how to achieve it quickly, effectively and practically.
AT&T set up a community of interest. Once they grasped what open source could do for time-to-market, they moved to an open source community for expansion of the ecosystem, with valuable innovation. Other leading service providers, operators, vendors, standardization bodies and other contributors jumped on the train. The mission was set, and without going into the complex details of the plan, they led the change.
In the meantime, the industry is boiling over with many other initiatives formed by giants like Facebook with their Open Compute Project (OCP), Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and if that’s not enough, I can name some more.
My personal (maybe biased) interest is in the Linux Foundation which aims to streamline solutions for the real problems in the telecoms market. They are now focusing their activity under a new umbrella project called Open Networking Automation Platform (ONAP).
At the meantime, the MEF, that created the 80-Billion-dollar Carrier Ethernet market, is now driving all hands collaboration on open source via OpenLSO and OpenCS projects, to enable agile, assured, and orchestrated Third Network services. These services will enable telecommunications companies (and the related ecosystem) to transform into the digital economy and the hyper-connected world. All these efforts are based on open source initiatives that will prevail and change the face of the telecommunications industry.
The game is on – If you’re not afraid, you don’t understand the problem
It’s easy to become wrapped up in the hype of it all, but all concepts should be taken seriously. The complexity of open source projects is to understand the jungle of millions of projects and how you fit in. What matters is to inspect what projects have value and why. What project will drive industry into the next big thing and enable agility that was not possible in the past. Besides the engineering transformation, we need to remember that the old school business concept of planning five years ahead is too complex and in the new economy, there’re no tools to do so since the world has become flat. This means that if we judge the open source strategies, commercial companies can implement and join open source projects to shorten development cycles, expand the market reach and transform to new business models.
The future brings an outstanding opportunity to move the industry to an open paradigm that can be a successful, collaborative effort, spanning across multiple geographies, time zones, cultural boundaries and drive new economies of scale. The ones that will survive, are not necessarily the big giants, but the ones that will be able to adopt the new model and open their talented human capital to a wider technical community while diverting their efforts towards corporate commercial interest. This is an opportunity for the future. I couldn’t finish the article without thinking about a philosophical statement of Victor Hugo, that in some way can be highly practical and food for thought: “The future has many names: For the weak, it means the unattainable. For the fearful, it means the unknown. For the courageous, it means opportunity.”