Someone Downloads a File, Someone Uploads a File

Author Cory Doctorow is unusual in many ways, but most notably in that he publishes his work under the Creative Commons license, which is much looser than the normal “This work cannot be reproduced without permission. All rights reserved” form of copyright.

I saw a somewhat favorable review of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town in Wired Magazine and was interested in reading it. Then I saw that he had made it freely available for download on his website, and he even encourages people to port it to new devices (such as a Palm Pilot, etc.)

I have a huge backlog of reading to do, so I’m not sure when I’ll get around to reading his novel (probably on the plane to LinuxWorld Expo in August), but I did read the first couple of pages where he answers the questions “Why do I do this?”.

We often get the same questions concerning OpenNMS: why open-source? So I thought I’d try to answer the question in a similar way, with Short Term, Long Term and Medium Term goals.

Short Term

Doctorow, through experience, has shown that he doesn’t lose many sales by having a downloadable copy available. He finds that they are complimentary. I know that there are times that I would love to be able to search for a word or phrase in a book without having to dig through the text.

Our short term goals are a lot different. We don’t have the equivalent of a book to sell, but our competitors do. Thus one big advantage of being open-source is that people can try OpenNMS for free. I would think that anyone considering OpenView or Netcool or Tivoli or Unicenter would be smart to check out OpenNMS before writing that big check. In fact, we really can’t compete against the sales force and budgets of those companies, so open-source is probably our ”only” way of being successful.

Also, open-source allows us to grow quickly. In 1.3.0, coming soon, we have SNMPv3 support. Since the joeSNMP libraries that OpenNMS currently uses don’t support SNMPv3 we had the choice of either adding it or using something else. We decided the quickest method was to use the SNMP4J libraries, thus not requiring us to duplicate work.

Long Term

In Doctorow’s forward, his long term view concerns the future of paper books. Paper is going away as we read more and more on screens, and in role books will play in the future is unclear.

He did stress that is would be silly to think of the future having simply a digital analog of a paper book: an eBook with an eBook reader. While he didn’t go into specifics, it is a good bet that books 50 years from now will be weirder than we can imagine, as people continue to do strange things with media.

The long term view for OpenNMS is similar: the future of network management will be much different than the way things are now. We are trying to position OpenNMS to be able to adapt to these changes, and by making the “guts” open for modification via the open-source development model, OpenNMS will be able to change faster than a commercial application.

With the large community OpenNMS enjoys, we already get tested on more and more diverse networks than any lab could hope to reproduce. With each release about 20% of the content is contributed from people who don’t work on OpenNMS for their livelihood (but they may use OpenNMS primarily in their jobs).

Commercial applications are also under a lot of price pressure as they start to become commodities. When network management applications were new, they could command high dollar. Now with the number of inexpensive and open source options, there is even more demand for the prices to drop.

The long term goal of OpenNMS is to become the default network management platform of choice. Only by being open source and become even more easy to integrate and enhance can the product adapt quickly enough to reach this goal.

Medium Term

Yes, I know that “medium” should have come before “long”, but I’m trying to follow Doctorow here, and this is the order he used.

To quote:

“My chances of landing speaking gigs, columns, paid assignments, and the rest are all contingent on my public profile. The more people there are that have read and enjoyed my work, the more of these gigs I’ll get. And giving away books increases your notoriety a whole lot more than clutching them to your breast and damning the pirates”

The commercial side of OpenNMS is all about services, and not about selling software. Being enterprise-grade, it can be difficult and time consuming to learn how to best use OpenNMS, and the OpenNMS Group basically sells time: time spent installing OpenNMS, configuring it, learning about it, fixing problems and extending it.

Just as it is hard for writers to move from selling books to other activities such as speaking engagements, it is often hard for people to figure out how OpenNMS can stay around if there is no software to sell.

I often here that “open-source won’t be successful until there is an open-source billionaire”. I always point our that there is: Jeff Bezos. There is no way that could be as profitable if they had to purchase licenses for all of their software. Open-source is a different business than selling software, and just as in the change from the telegraph to the telephone, there is going to be resistance.