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What should “open source” really mean to me? (2/2)

It’s difficult for many to understand how open source applies in the business world. Most folks get trapped in the mindset of software as product, yet many folks have built businesses based on Open Source – usually by giving away the software / algorithms, but selling implementation services. The Trolltech story is another (typical) twist – free software for non-commercial use, but licensing the stuff to corporations.

Why would the latter work? Because of the other difficulty business has with open-source; “if it’s free, it’s probably risky / unsupported / no good”. Non-commercial vs. corporate lets you charge the big guys, yet keeps your software active in the hearts and minds of the early adopters and the techs that really understand what you’re trying to accomplish. (For a much better grounding in FOSS/business “theory”, read this essay by Graham, and this chunk o stuff by Graham – two pieces that are much better treatments of the topic).

There are more “open” business models out there, and the OpenBusiness Wiki (via BoingBoing) has got some pretty interesting stuff going on. A neat tight-loop of the “open” mentality, it is a collaborative site regarding open business models and ideas. For example: this entry defines succinctly what I struggled through just now (profit results from adding substantial value to what is already free) – plus, they talk about how you can “protect” your possibilities with the Creative Commons “share-alike” license.

On the other hand, it’s still a business-driven world, and there is much risk in the FOSS world. If you are mid-career, keeping an eye on the savings plan and thinking about college tuitions, weddings, and mortgages, striking out with a free product / service can be intimidating. Even with a great idea and technical skills, there is the whole work/life balance to think about – notice how so many of these web-preneurs are right out of school?

The problem is, that line of thinking is just more of the same that I mentioned above. What are the Trolltechs of the world really selling? The implementation service, the ongoing support, the training, etc. It’s not knowledge management, but knowledge monetization, and realizing that is a nice first step to understanding the possibilities that OS can mean to you. It’s the knowledge, stupid.

I started talking about this in my previous post; the FOSS world is just handing you easy access to an incredible range of technologies (like geocoding / mapping) that you can get hands-on experience with, at reasonable scale, getting incredible results, for no investment (other than your time). Where is the value in that? It’s all personal:

  • Productivity enhancer – better tools, techniques, access to process and data I used to dream about
  • It ain’t bragging if you can do it – why talk about it when I can show it? Business folks are sick of hearing sales reps, consultants, and geeks talk about how great information systems are, but show them something on the screen that really works, and they will perk right up
  • Hype-immunity – It’s nice to be able to discern those who can talk about it from those who can do it. This also comes in handy when negotiating SOWs, requirements, proposals, etc.
  • Career flexibility – In IT, if you’re not continuously learning, you aren’t treading water – you’re slowly drowning. Hey, don’t take my word for it – even Gartner is pointing this out. The best IT person labors to make themselves obsolete – so they can move on to the Next Cool Thing!
  • Career future – How many feel-good stories about folks who turned their hobbies into careers do you need to read, before you see the light? Using the Internet and the ever-popular law of large numbers, you can quickly build a site and put an idea out there (throw some mud on the wall) and see if there is a critical mass of interest (see if it sticks). Yes, you’ll also be testing your communication and marketing skills, but you can quickly get a neo-MBA for no cost (again, except for your time).

Still only considering some experimentation? You aren’t alone, don’t worry about that, but this is truly an area where existentialism is the truth that will set you free.

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