Open Source is political: Blows Against The Empire

Open Source product groups are occasionally highly politically motivated - frankly some come from a socialist/anarchist viewpoint of wanting to bring down the evil capitalist system. Whilst I realise that capitalism has an image problem right now, open source tools will never prosper in business until they get aboard business.

This comment is inspired by Matt Stansberry quoting John M. Willis (I can't find the original quote) “Stop it with the open source stuff. Stop even mentioning it. Solar Winds is kicking your butt all over the place and all they’re talking about is price and performance.”

The article is robustly debated by the prickly Andrew Shafer at Reductive, the same who gave me stick for wanting people to contribute to OPS4LESS before they could access the full text of the open user-contributed content. The OPS4LESS principle is that you can eat all you want at the buffet so long as you leave a little food on your way in. But according to Andrew this is selfish and obstructive. Actually the idea doesn't work: no-one is buying in. So I'm not arguing that it is a good idea, just that it was a reasonable one :D

Anyway back to open source rather than open content. Plenty of people working on open source projects are motivated solely by the holy dollar, possibly most of them. But the vocally political few, starting with the mighty Stallman, still give open source this tie-died guerilla aura that discomforts the suits. I agree with John. If "open source anarchists" want to advance their covert cause and dig away the foundations of the evil corporations, they will do best to sit down, shut up, and let the cleancut advocates pitch open source for its business merits using business language.

One example is the distinction between "commercial" software and open source software, a distinction that Shafer draws in his comments about the Stansberry article. If open source developers don't see themselves as producing a commerical product in a competitively commercial environment then they are stone dead. They can continue to provide cool tools to cool people in cool little (struggling) companies but broad adoption will elude them. The correct distinction is between open source commercial products and closed source commercial products.

The tool this site is built in, Drupal, is another example. Drupal has enormous potential as a business tool for knowledge management and portals, but there is at least one key figure in the Drupal echelons who won't acknowledge Internet Explorer as a valid deployment platform. In the same way that Silicon Valley lives in its own little world, the open source community do too. The mindset is: "Nobody I know uses IE" or "Nobody in their right mind uses IE - serves them right". For the record here's the breakdown on this blog:
1. Internet Explorer 60.59%
2. Firefox 28.18%
3. Chrome 4.95%
4. Safari 3.73%
5. Opera 1.10%
6. Googlebot 0.54%
7. Mozilla 0.51%
8. Mozilla Compatible Agent 0.15%
9. Konqueror 0.07%
10. SeaMonkey 0.07%
(Incidentaly my subjective unanalysed impression of these numbers is that Chrome is eating Firefox's market share as much as IE's, which is probably not what Google intended).

IE's penetration in the corporate world is of course much higher still. Open source developers who don't embrace IE as their dominant target market are only cutting off their own legs. But some of them just can't bring themselves to love the bomb.

More generally, selling open source as Blows Against The Empire positions your product as attacking the value set of the people you want to approve its adoption. As John says, don't do it.

As he also says, don't even lead with open source, however you describe it. In a business context, whether it is open or not is just one techie geek factor, just like what database it is based on. Architects will have strong views on this but they are only one voice in selecting a software. The real question is what business value it delivers. A high-value closed tool will whip a low value open tool every time.

Being open source gives tool developers an advantage in making their product cheaper, more reliable, more responsive to the market's needs, more universally adaptable, and more functionally rich. If they achieve that they'll win. The fact they did it using open source is irrelevant.


Opening content

Its easy to highlight differences between software and content, but if you dig deep into OpenSource Software Vendors you will find many more similarities than differences. IP is IP and subject to much of the same benefits and problems in Open Source. Creative Commons has licenses which try to match the GPL copyleft principles so its possible to have some degree of protection, but adopting these licenses still assumes that you plan to use the adoption or passive vendor method of selling value.

The advantages of Open Source is this adoption model. You don't need a large salesforce to drive adoption and monetization by selling the value of the IP.

Its true what has been said about taking the content and people doing what they like with it, the basics are however that if you are the source of the content and you continue to innovate and develop it, then people will be attracted to the source. If someone else makes a better solution, then that's the rule of business. People reverse engineer technology all the time and launch competitive products, even in the hardware world. Putting physical barriers in front of content is artifical protection.

You need to start with a clear plan on what content you will monetize and what you will release for adoption. Whatever is released, needs to be substantial and useful in a production manner (IMHO). Its when use of the content becomes pervasive in your customers environment, then your monetization strategy is to provide for paid use additional content, services etc.. that make further adoption easier. In the same manner softwate projects release core installable and useable products and then monetize functionality that supports it (MySQL Enterprise Monitor, Redhat Linux vs. Fedora & RHN).

I moved to a OSS focussed job in my current employer for a year to explore these exact dynamics. It reinforced to me that content projects can learn for the successes and failures of Open Source software projects.


Brad Vaughan


Dear Skeptic,

I've never been called prickly before.

How is OPS4LESS doing? I don't see how anything from me could be interpreted as calling you selfish.

I thought OPS4LESS seemed like a great idea that was putting unnecessary roadblocks up for itself, perhaps like 'Open Source'. As I concluded before, we are all entitled to run our experiments.

Have you met Javier Soltero?

I get the impression that we should be able to smell the patchouli from here, but when I go to the web sites all I see is enterprisy system management marketing. You have to try really hard to even find 'Open Source' on Hyperic's home page.

I also don't think you will find any of these people at a drum circle near you.

My main points of contention with the original article can be summarized as "correlation is not causation" and "don't pee on my leg and tell me it is raining".

I didn't make the distinction between open source and commercial software, that was already done in the article. 'Open Source' has become nebulous at best, which only adds to the confusion. I don't see Open Source as a 'beachfront' from Hyperic and simply reject the notion that Hyperic would suddenly be more competitive if they dropped all mention of OS from their marketing. The notion that OS options somehow have a higher cost of ownership is simply ludicrous.

That being said, I do agree that there are certain philosophical underpinnings in some 'Open Source' circles that can be interpreted as 'attacking the value set' of those who are in the position to facilitate adoption. On some level, I believe that could also be true about some of your positions on this site. Maybe that's why I like you...

Would you be interested in joining John Willis and myself in a podcast?


less prickly than me

Sure let's discuss in a podcast - but you two will be way over my head in OSS expertise - I'm only dabbling at the edges with little real immersion. I'm a consumer not a developer. I'm calling it as I see it from the outside.

I'm sure you are less prickly than me. One of the essentials of democracy is that extreme views are required to move the lump in the middle so i apply a little leverage at times. I think the OSS-as-social-engineering movement is real but as you say it is not that overt. Perception is reality, however, and if you chatted about OSS systems tools to an exec who knows nothing about it, I'm sure she'd mention it. And if you chatted to some OSS guys at a conference booth? Any whiff of it in a sales spiel, conference presentation etc would go down badly for most business decision makers.

P.S. I'm reworkign OPS4LESS based on the failure of the business model :)


I probably didn't make this clear before, but I think the OPS4LESS setup was inhibiting participation in a way that prohibited network effects.

Granted it is all experimentation, but imagine an open source project that wouldn't let you see the source or use it until you provided a plugin or a patch. That dynamic provides a significant, if not severe, barrier to entry and ignores the power law distribution of members of most communities.

I appreciate what you were ostensibly trying to do, which I interpret as build a filtered community of contributors at the fat head of the distribution. I'd love to see that project get traction and become a resource.

Send me and email and we'll work out a good time with JM Willis.


software and content are not the same

software and content are not the same, open or otherwise. This seems to bea similar problem to the one ITIL faces: people try to "install" it or "roll it out" because that is how IT has approached projects.

If you release OSS to the winds you get critical mass. it seesm to me if you release content to the winds all you have done is disperse your IP. [Note: opening up OPS4LESS website to readers is not the same as releasing a body of knowledge document under a Commons license - i have no control over the re-use. Thios is REAL release] OC doesn't stay as a single body of work like a OSS product, the ideas just wander off. Also I'm not convinced OC and OSS users have the same incentives to contribute. the differences between OC and OSS are a really interesting area of study that I'd like to learn more about.

Anyway i'm going to open OPS4LESS up, but I will still require registration and the right to send OPS4LESS-specific announcements to those emails. I'll do an annual OPS4LESS Almanac book. think that might work?

remember there has to be something in it for the website provider. if I'm going to provide a public service site then overpaid IT is the last group i'd do it for :D

if you love something...

Ops4less is now free-to-access for all registered users. We are totally committed to cutting the cost of IT operations. "Better" is a useful by-product: "cheaper" is our goal.

itil was open

I think that the success of real itil was largely based on that it was originally free to use and that there were a lot of volunteer effort behind it.

It is a pity that a lot of people seem to be writing their own improved versions...


Oh no it wasn't

Well I guess it depends on your definitions. You still don't have to pay to use ITIL, only to read about it or be trained in it, and that has always been the case. When it was developed UK Government was still a firm believer in the concept of the common good, i.e. if HMG developed something that was useful for themselves they were happy to share it with the private sector (In the UK at least) to benefit the economy as a whole.

And trust me there is still an awful lot of volunteer effort behind it, as there is for ISO/IEC 20000, but that doesn't make it open source, and neither is COBIT for that matter

James Finister
Wolston Limited


You cannot use the text of ITIL - it is copyright. You can only use the concepts. This was always so, but seems to be increasingly enforced.

Nor can you use the brand to describe your own products. I have taken legal advice over my use of the word "ITIL" and there are complex and murky bounds within which I can use it. Others push the envelope much further than I do :)

Then there is always the question of the mysteriously disappearing 1.1.1.

see here

This triggered a blog


I agree the difference between OC and OSS is fascinating, but Sourceforge is littered with projects that were thrown to the wind and will never have critical mass.

OSS projects are forked all the time. IP and ideas just wander off.

Compensation is an open question.

The opposite of embracing the openness is probably the disaster that is currently copyright and patent law.

Somewhere in the middle has to be a sweet spot.

Compensation is an open question

"Compensation is an open question" - therein lies a problem. Any piece of software or body of knowledge that depends on the goodness of the community to survive is not something i would bet my business on. And it certainly isn't something i would devote much of my time to :D If i want to do charity work I'll join Rex Cross

My Quote


Nice post. Just to be clear, I have no issue with OSS or OSS anarchists. My only point was that when it comes to selling software, the price/performance are the only real important points.


best product does not always win

I assume by performance you also include some degree of functionality.

Even with those criteria for winning I think its shaky ground, at least in the long term.

Concepts of "lock-in" can protect price premiums, functionality and performance disadvantages.

First mover advantage can create early adoption cycle that creates lock-in through things like available skillsets to deploy and many other external market effects.


Brad Vaughan

Too True [www_amazon_com]

The paper clip is NOT the best product.

James Finister
Wolston Limited

I think the tide is turning

I agree with the majority of your comments and I think the OpenSource "vendors" are moving in this direction.

If you read the post by Matt Assay you will see this is an evolving view. Certainly Redhat, MySQL and a number of others are well down this road.

There will continue to be the religious aspect to Open Source which need to be managed. Its a double edged knife, because you don't want to disenfranchise the geeks that contribute to the community.

A community that is exclusively run by the Open Source religion, often fails to commericalize, but not always the initial adoption phase. To a certain extent Open Source also leverages the "Blows Against The Empire" perspective during the initial adoption of product because it follows the disruption adoption outside of the traditional IT spend that was leveraged by many technology trends before it, including the PC and the Internet.

Brad Vaughan

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