Radio Free Europe

Some of my friends have a habit of trying to push my buttons. Many times they succeed (grin), and thus today I was asked to comment on a blog post by Larry Augustin about the difference in viewpoints on open source between Europe and the United States.

This post was based on his take on the first Europe Open Source Think Tank. I know they hold one of these in California every year, but I don’t get invited to that one either so this was the first I’d heard of it.

I had the pleasure of having dinner with a group that included Larry about 18 months ago. He intimidates me a little. He is a very nice guy in person, and he is probably one of the most financially successful people involved with open source. But then I read about things like the MedSphere debacle and I don’t know what to think except to be a little scared. In all fairness I never heard the Medsphere story from Larry in person, so there might be a nicer take on the whole thing.

Anyway, Larry put up a detailed chart comparing the views of open source between companies in Europe and in the United States. The OpenNMS Group has customers in over 18 countries outside of the US and from my experience the analysis is dead on.

When you say “open source” outside of the US, it means 100% free software. If you look at the column labeled “European View” it pretty much echos what I’ve been saying for years. The “commercial” open source business model as seen in the United States View is not open source.

Free and open source software represents a shift in the ownership of software from a small, tightly controlled group to a large, disperse community. It is 100% transparent and 100% free. Thus the value moves away from the code itself and onto those who can best use it. The Europeans seem to understand this.

In the US a lot of new software companies are driven by venture capitalists. Contrary to popular belief, VCs are actually very conservative and sometimes quite timid. They only want to try things that have been done successfully before. They know how to sell software, and now that open source is a popular buzzword, they want to sell open source software. So what happens is that either a mature commercial product that isn’t selling is labeled “open source” in order to garner interest, or a new product is created with an “open source” part in order to garner interest.

I think the tolerance of this model is driven by my free food analogy. Corporate decision makers are wary of “free” software and wonder what the catch is. When they find out that they actually have to pay for it in order to realize true benefit they return to their comfort zone. The fact of the matter is that in the US these people could care less about open source. They want the cheapest solution, and if it has to come with an open source label so be it.

For some reason the Europeans (and Asians and the Pac Rim in my experience) expect open source to mean free and open software, and they grouse at any attempt to pervert the term. Perhaps it is because Europe consists of so many different languages that it is harder to dilute meaning.

I could go on forever about “enterprise” editions v. “open source” editions, etc., but even now I begin to repeat myself. So let me end this with three points.

First, while the European understanding of open source is solid, the rate of adoption is lower than you might imagine, especially in the UK. While we have a number of clients in England in some cases it was a hard sell.

Second, during my dinner with Larry the talk was all about how to deal with Nagios. I think the bigger concern is how to deal with Solarwinds. Orion is mature, pretty to look at, affordable and in many cases a useful tool. How do you get someone to pay US$100/node for “free software” when they can get unlimited management for US$20,000? If cost is the basis of your business model, prepare to get undercut.

Second, not all companies in the US misunderstand the usefulness and power of open source. I’m at a client right now who really gets it. They’re excited, I’m excited, and we are doing great things.

We are pretty sure we know how to become very successful without having to resort to selling software (I won’t blog about the details on that though – a boy’s got to have a few secrets). In the meantime I also have no doubt that one or more of Larry’s companies will make lots of money. He’s smart that way.

It really depends on the ultimate goals of the software creators and the people who back them. Do you want to make a lot of money fast, or do you want to build something that lasts? I know a number of wealthy people whose life’s work is a footnote in some other company’s portfolio.

I want OpenNMS to be around for decades. Okay, so I won’t be able to buy a Ferrari in the next year, but then again my hope is the project will be around long after the car is a pile of metal.

And I’d much rather have a V-Rod.

4 thoughts on “Radio Free Europe

  1. Tarus – have you asked for an invitation to the Think Tank events? I don’t think anyone knew you were interested in attending. -Larry

  2. Tarus, we agree with you completely! We believe that OpenSourceNMS will be around forever so we (a US commercial vendor) decided we’d work WITH the OS community, rather against it. We built our solution so OS applications like Nagios, Cacti, etc can be integrated into our commercial platform. The idea was to provide IT administrators with a complimentary solution that expanded their capabilities in an easy way. What we don’t believe in is the commercial OS models like Hyperic — for all the reasons you state. We’ve gotten really good response from the US-based OS community and hope the European OS community will be interested in working with us as well. We’re not free, by any means, but we’re more affordable than most and again, we support OS applications.

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