What, oh what, has happened to these open-source people? At this week's O'Reilly & Associates Open Source Convention in the US, I didn't hear a lot about the philosophy and politics of "the movement." I didn't hear bitter fights over which open-source license is best, or endless fretting about the confusion over what the free in free software means -- free as in beer? Free as in ride? Free as in not in jail?
What I did hear a lot about was business.
And not just the business of selling Linux operating systems, or selling hardware bundled with MySQL databases, or selling services to install and maintain Apache Web servers and Perl scripts. No, these open-source people were talking about the kind of business issues that matter to corporate IT: how to cost-justify projects, how to stay connected with user needs, how a company can innovate by using free software -- not just profit by selling it.
So here was book publisher Tim O'Reilly, sponsor of the conference, talking about a paradigm shift in business models, in which "open-source application" doesn't just mean OpenOffice but also refers to Google and Yahoo and Amazon.com -- companies running on open-source software but using it in some very proprietary ways.
And over there was Ward Cunningham, one of the creators of the extreme programming approach to software development, talking about Fit, an open-source testing tool designed to link managers, developers and business users while applications are being developed.
Wait -- managers? Business models? Since when does the unstructured, unbusinesslike open-source world worry about this stuff? And O'Reilly and Cunningham weren't alone -- the program was full of presentations on open-source business models that matter to corporate IT, not just Red Hat wannabes, and on open-source software and techniques that apply directly to what corporate IT shops do.
What happened to all the anticapitalist, anticorporate rhetoric that used to make the free-software crowd so easy for corporate IT people to dismiss? Oh, it's still around. It's just not where the action is anymore.
Now the action lies in doing business with open-source.
That means staying focused on the fact that you get your business advantage from your data, not your applications. And the fact that business conditions change constantly, so your software has to keep changing or it will fall out of sync. And the fact that real enterprise software depends on the people who use it as much as those people depend on the software.
Yeah, that's all stuff they were discussing in Portland. A long way from debates about politics, isn't it?
No wonder every big software vendor is playing an open-source card. Open-source is more focused on IT for doing business than those other vendors are. In fact, it's more focused on that challenge than many corporate IT people.
And today, that makes open-source a real threat to the status quo for both vendors and IT shops. It's one thing to change the way software is built and distributed. It's far more radical to change the way IT is used to do business.
All of which should be a wake-up call for corporate IT. Paying close attention to open-source is no longer optional. You don't have to buy open-source philosophy or politics or even products. But if open-source really is where the interesting thinking about IT and business is being done, you need to stay on top of it.
So pay attention to open-source. Track it. If you spot a good idea, steal it or adapt it or repurpose it. Let the open-source crowd do the heavy lifting; you can cherry-pick whatever is most innovative or interesting or useful to you.
Just don't ignore it -- or in a few years, you could be wondering what, oh what, has happened to your IT shop.