I live in Chatham County, North Carolina, USA. This is surprising to me, since I grew up less than an hour away in a town called Asheboro, and when I turned 18 I wanted to be as far away as I could. I moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t expect to end up this close to where I grew up.
Working on open source software in Chatham appeals to the hippie aspect of the culture, but I really don’t view myself as a hippie. However, I do embrace such hippie ideals as personal freedom, concern for the environment, community and cooperation.
These ideas are not incompatible with capitalism, although many think they are, especially the environmental aspect. The problem is that often there is no direct way to evaluate the costs or value of things like “clean air” and “community” when trying to determine the best way to maximize profit, so these things can be exploited.
I’m trying to come up with a term to describe people who are attracted to hippie ideals but can combine them with the capitalist ideal of maximizing return on investment. It’s sort of like that scene in A Beautiful Mind where John Nash demonstrates that if he and his friends cooperate the overall benefit to the group is greater than if they act alone.
What should we call ourselves? Neo-Hippies? Pragmatic Idealists? The practitioners of conservatism popularized by the American President Reagan and Presidents Bush are called Neo-Cons – I’m looking for something like that.
What does this have to do with open source software? True open source software provides just such a cooperative benefit, since both the creators and the consumers of software have an ownership stake in the project.
While not always true of consumer software, enterprise software has tall barriers to entry and exit. If you have a large company running on Windows, it is not easy to switch to, say, OS X. Enterprise software also tends to be expensive. I once worked with a large bank, and the network manager spent nearly US$1 million on an application called Concord Network Health. While not a bad app, it was expensive, and when I was hired to install it I realized that the manager had made a bad choice. The information he was interested in was not possible to easily acquire with the software.
But there was no way they were going to scrap the project after spending so much money on it. In fact, they kept spending money on it in yearly maintenance costs in order not to “lose” their investment due to lack of upgrades and bug fixes. Even after the manager was fired a couple of years later, he still defends the decision.
In the meantime, Concord made gobs of money and made their investors happy. While not strictly a zero-sum game, in this case (and in many, many others I can name) the software vendor profited much more than the end user.
While it is rare for a vendor to seek to actively screw their customers, it is the profit aspect of proprietary software that really appeals to the open core folks. They want the benefits of open source and community, but they also want the advantages of vendor lock-in and software license revenue. My claim is that having that business model within the framework of maximizing profits means that at some point the community will suffer, and we’re back to the zero-sum game.
True open source software gets rid of this dichotomy. By lowering the barriers to entry and exit, it changes the dynamics of the vendor/customer relationship. The benefits to the vendor increase proportionally to the benefits to the community (and thus the customers), and not tangentially.
Sure, open source is not without cost, but without huge up-front license fees it is much easier to choose a different solution. Without required maintenance fees it costs a lot less to own. And being open source, it is often easier and less expensive to add the functionality you need than to seek out a different solution.
But many people seem to think that adopting a pure open source business strategy goes against capitalism. Sure, I’ll grant that it is a lot harder to make money fast, but in the long run I believe the payoff will be greater and more sustainable.
I didn’t start this post with the idea of ending up rehashing my open source v. open core beliefs (I plan to prove the validity of the pure open source business model by making OpenNMS incredibly successful, not by writing blog posts) but instead to focus on a businessman with a social agenda vs. a pure profit one.
Specifically, Lyle Estill.
Lyle is a local legend. At times he is pure hippie. Catch him on a work day and you’ll find him in dirty overalls. At other times he is pure capitalist. Catch him at a business meeting and he’s dressed in “dry clean only” finery rivaling my own collection of Armani.
He’s a salesman, a metal sculptor, a chess player, a writer and founding member of the grassroots biodiesel movement. I have rarely met a tougher negotiator or a person more focused on the bottom line, yet in almost everything he does there is a social angle to it.
He was recently quoted in USA Today (an OpenNMS client, I might add) on the resurgence of a local currency we have called The Plenty. Unfortuntely, the quote was wrong. He said we are a “whacked-out little town,” meaning a little odd but in a good way, which got translated as “wiped-out little town,” which doesn’t sound good at all. Now, when the Telegraph in the UK runs the article, the headline is “Struggling US towns print their own currency“.
We’re not struggling. In fact in the face of this recession I’d say we’re doing pretty well. Part of that is due to our emphasis on community.
Communities in general are becoming more prevalent. With the widespread availability of broadband internet the geographical barriers are gone and sites likes Facebook are seeing record traffic. In software especially, the role of the user community is getting a lot of attention. I don’t think that anyone will disagree that at least for enterprise software, in the near future there will be some component that is open source in order to foster just such a community.
But a traditional capitalist might see community as something to be manipulated, if not exploited, much like clean water or air. That could result in some short term gains but they will be at the expense of long term gains as the community learns that they are being manipulated.
With the rising importance of communities, there will be those of us that see that vibrant, independent and empowered communities go hand in hand with maximizing profit in the long term. That money and ideals don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But what should we call ourselves? Neo-hippies doesn’t seem quite right.
Oh, and in case anyone is counting, Lyle is rather financially well off. He demonstrates that wealth and community is not an either/or situation. I’m just trying to follow in his footsteps.