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Community: Purpose and Participation: It’s Harder Than It Looks

[ Thanks to Gary
Edwards
for this article. ]

Recently OpenOffice.org member Roger van Vissingen responded to
a discussion thread entitled, “Microsoft fleeing up market;
encounters networked market inefficients
.” Unexpectedly he
broke from the “Microsoft is the center of the universe, but not
for long” mold of commentary, and posted the following quote:

<Roger> … What is not yet clear is what are going to be
the successful open source ecosystems. Peter Drucker said the
purpose of business is to create a customer. The mistake of mature
businesses is to try to MAINTAIN their past glories past
irrelevance, and fail to create new customers for whom they do have
relevance…<…/Roger>

full thread here

Hummm. “Successful Open Source Ecosystems.” “The Purpose of
Business.” Good topics. And Roger managed to fit into the same
paragraph a comment from Peter Drucker, last centuries Über
corporate management guru. While I’ve done enough Microsoft
commentary (i.e. “bashing”) to last four lifetimes, this new angle
is interesting. Especially since every corporation outside of
Redmond seeks an insight into how to make a go of participating
with a successful open source ecosystem. Open source is a
competitive advantage Microsoft can never touch. It’s like doing
business in waters that Redmond can’t navigate or mine. If only one
knows how to use it.

There is an interesting “must read” post from Simon Phipps (Sun)
concerning open source ecosystems, and how to participate. It’s
titled, “The
Subscription Model: A Necessary Trend for Open Source
Deployers
.”

Based on discussions that took place at a rather informal
JavaONE meeting I was fortunate enough to attend, Simon artfully
argues Sun’s approach to participating in a “successful” open
source ecosystem.

1. A New Organizational Model

Roger’s “Drucker quote” is spot on, but I think we could benefit
by expanding the Drucker philosophy a bit in hopes of meshing in
with Simon’s effort to throttle the pulse. Peter Drucker has also
said that the corporation is the premier model for organizing
people, resources, and finances for the purposes of profit. In this
context one might argue that Open Source Communities are a new
organizational model, the purposes of which are services and
contributions being shared instead of sold for profit.

Another interesting aspect is that these new organizational
models can fully leverage the enormous impact of Metcalf’s Law,
“the Network Effect.” In fact, it’s hard to determine which
coalesced into a driving force first, the Open Source “shared”
contribution model, or the “Network Effect.” Could one exist
without the other? Not that an answer to that question matters.
What really matters is the clear observation that Drucker Corps
style vendors can’t tap into the “Network Effect” supernova without
having to seriously compromise their core organizational
principles. For anyone still pursuing Gatesian style monopolist
perversions of the Drucker model, this realization is
disastrous.

Simon outlines some of the reasons FLOSS will rule the day, but
his focus is clearly on how it is that a Drucker Corp can
“profitably” contribute to and participate with OSS orgs. The
conflicts of organizational purpose looms large. Interestingly
these reasons seem to center on advantages important to
computational consumers, or “customers”–or in the world of
FLOSS–the members (or beneficiaries) of OSS Communities that Simon
refers to as “deployers.” Simon also explains how corporations can
and do participate with FOSS to become important delivery channels
for these advantages.

<from Simon> “What freedoms do deployers need? They’re
actually rather traditional:

  • Function that meets actual business needs

  • Freedom to change supplier, so that prices can always be
    negotiated

  • Freedom to choose new software solutions as business needs
    evolve

  • Control of the data, by implication control of the format it’s
    stored in

  • Protection from liabilities associated with the development of
    the software” <…/Simon>

2. Ownership & Independence

In many OOo discussions these advantages are often referred to
as “independence” or “ownership” issues. OpenOffice.org and
Mozilla.org are about as fine an example of what is meant by first
class organizational participation in a “successful open source
ecosystem” as can be found. They’ve mastered the demanding
architectures of participation and interoperability. So much so
that vendors the likes of Novell, IBM, and Sun have been able to
extend that interoperability into highly integrated product lines.
No doubt there is great value to these “professionally edited”
integrated enhancements. And one can see the Network Effect being
harnessed.

So far so good. But there’s a catch. Call it the curse of the
Network Effect. Remember the Law of Drucker, ” the purpose of
business is to create a customer?” When you dance with OSS
communities, what you create is a “member” not a customer.
Ooops.

Maybe a vendor profits from these “members.” But unless the
vendor can master the art of what former BEA CEO Bill Coleman once
called “running the stack”, there’s a rising cost to repurchasing
these members. “Running the stack” is a process of open innovation
at the higher levels of systems enhancements, while pushing past
innovations into the lower foundation of open source–open
standards layers. Once clients trust you to “openly” innovate,
they’ll subscribe and upgrade as you run the stack with
enhancements targeting higher levels. Just don’t compromise their
ownership and independence (or what Jonathan Schwartz calls the
empowerment of “substitution”). You’ll never see them again. You’ll
never get another bite of that apple precisely because “membership”
has Network Effect based “ownership” advantages.

From a global technologists perspective we frequently hear
statements something like this: In a distributed network centric
world, loosely coupled systems lead to greater independence at all
layers of connectivity, including the end points. Independence of
platform, application, and proprietary middleware, leads to
consumer/client control (ownership) of both the information, and
the information process. Woe to proprietary vendors trying to
insert control points, erect barriers, and self righteously
compromise the Internet formula of open standards, open interfaces,
open communications and messaging protocols, and now, open XML
technologies.

IMHO, we can get beyond the goop of the 30,000 foot view and
drill down to some clear “ownership” specifics simply by looking at
three architectural aspects of the OpenOffice.org effort: The OASIS
OO XML file format, the UNO Component model, and, the OOo
architecture of participation (to borrow a phrase from Tim
O’Reilly). (Apologies also to that other great champion of cross
platform magnificence, Mozilla.org, in that my focus here will be
on OOo)

3. Ownership at the File Format Level

Because the OASIS Open Office XML file format separates the
information content and context from application and application
platform, OOo members fully own their information at that lowest of
all levels, the file. They don’t need any vendors permission or
licensed assistance to take that information with them when they
switch applications or platforms. Nor do they need vendor
permission to collaboratively work that information across other
applications and other platforms. Because the OASIS OO XML file
format is both human and machine readable (structured), and fully
compliant with the growing ecoverse of open XML tools and
technologies, universal interoperability with applications of all
sorts becomes a trivial matter. A statement that will be just as
true 200 years from now as it is today.

These extremes of universal portability and endless
interoperability leave us with a glowing conclusion, the likes of
which OOo marketing is still trying to come to grips with and
explain: the OASIS OO file format redefines “ownership” for the
next generation of collaborative computing.

Trying to explain this to someone who can’t imagine the
possibilities of an independent life outside the bounds of the
Microsoft box is difficult. Trapped by their legacy investment in
the platform, the hopeful tendency is to see the future through the
dark glass of whatever Windows can do today. Or worse, through
whatever Microsoft promises Windows will do tomorrow. One thing
that helps though is to explain the importance of XML in terms of
structured vs. unstructured information. The trick is to get
outside concerns about the costs of leaving the Windows platform
and focus on the ownership costs of remaining there.

This reel has worked for me: “It’s estimated that over 90% of
mankind’s knowledge is in an unstructured format. That means that
the information is human readable, but not machine readable. Which
in turn means that since the information is unstructured, we can’t
apply the advancing power of our “knowledge machines”, our
computers. In the information age that’s the equivalent of trying
to dig the Panama Canal with a pick and shovel instead of using
nitro, mammoth bulldozers, cranes, advanced hydrolic systems, and
giant trucks. OpenOffice.org is the only office productivity suite
available today that natively generates structured XML files. And
OOo can do this for the most complex “compound documents” imagined.
The Australian Historical Society is already converting their
knowledge storage to OASIS OO XML file format so that these massive
volumes will be computationally useful to future generations.”

My point is that if you speak to the issue of the Windows box,
the MS platform and MS applications, your’s is likely to be just a
voice at the end of a long, very dark tunnel. If you speak to
“their” information though, even the echo is deafening.

This level of information independence / ownership also means
that members can collaborate without having to overcome the
barriers of expense and hassle so endemic of permission based
ecosystems.

The Universal Component Model:

The open XML file format is only part of the ownership story.
OOo members not only take ownership of their information, they take
ownership of the “information process.” The other parts are
provided by the open UNO component model, and, the responsible
attitude of the OOo Community.

The open UNO component model carves the office suite into easy
to grab components that developers can access, re purpose and use
to create new services and inter application connectivity that
might go far beyond anything the OOo engineers and designers ever
imagined. Indeed, IBM’s next generation WorkPlace configuration
does exactly this sort of OOo component based re engineering.

The funny thing is that with UNO, IBM is able to achieve
measures of interoperability and integration between WorkPlace and
Lotus Notes, the likes of which they were unable to achieve with
the Lotus Office Suite! Notes defined collaborative software for
the client/server platform model. One has to wonder what will
happen if IBM unleashes a web based collaborative workflow model
using the OOo WorkPlace compound documents on one side, meshing
with Notes “intelligent” workgroup documents on the other? Very
cool.

WorkPlace exposes some basic truths about what it takes to
achieve extremes of interoperability. First, OOo is an extremely
flexible XML engine. Second, information processing with OOo
components is not application bound, but able to integrate more
fully into the much larger context of the members complete
productivity and business processing environment. What looks to be
web magic is really just a well thought out next generation
component architecture flexing her muscles.

Microsoft applications have always held this “integration”
advantage by virtue of the facts that MS controls the OS, the Win32
API, and every other application users might need integrated into a
customized productivity environment. The sad truth is that in spite
of the DOJ’s anti trust settlement, Microsoft continues to own, by
permission or license, the desktop productivity environment. And
because of the settlement, MS is legally now able to extend that
ownership into desktop connectivity with servers and devices. Even
sadder, the settlement effectively eliminates any possibility of a
for profit corporation competing with Microsoft on the Windows
platform. Baring a giant leap to Linux, productivity alternatives
will come from OSS communities.

While IBM, Novell, and Sun are relentlessly pushing OOo
components and services into highly integrated “productivity
environment” alternatives, I think it’s great news that the core
OSS communities are finally getting together to start exploring the
perfection of their own integrated profiles. While it seems every
OSS community is driven to pursue extremes of interoperability, I
think there also comes a time when it makes sense for core
communities to coordinate efforts towards perfecting their own
integrated solutions. Why should we leave cross community
integration opportunities to corporations and distros? Besides,
setting an integration threshold might serve to push our corporate
benefactors further up the stack, and beyond the limited
expectations of providing alternatives to MS.

There is another important element of passing ownership of the
information process to members. In his blog Jonathan Schwartz
discusses the issue of “substitution.” A vendor might provide an
integrated stack based on open standards and comprised of mostly
open source solutions. But that doesn’t guarantee that the
components can be swapped out and replaced by alternatives without
the also collapsing stack dependencies, compromising interfaces,
and breaking critical protocols and methods. It’s not
“substitution” if everything else breaks.

One might also say that “substitution” is directly correlated
with good OSS citizenship. Sun is of course both the OOo benefactor
and driving force. Novell has returned all of their enhancements,
changes, and interoperability extensions to OOo. We’re still
waiting to see how IBM plays it. No wonder Sun chose the GPL for
their latest OSS contribution, “Looking Glass.”

The Architecture of Participation:

Important to the “ownership of the information process”
discussion is this element of how a community goes about taking
responsibility for the future. This is more than the licensing
issues Simon points to. It’s also more than the good citizen / good
stewardship issues Jonathan Schwartz references. IMHO,
“responsibility” has to be both built into the community framework
of participation, and, become a torch that simply refuses to die.
For members to truly take ownership of their information process,
they need to believe in the strength of the steel that binds a
community to triumph in that race to the future.

Fortunately our benefactor Sun was able to bake into the OOo
framework the magic of universal participation. It took Mozilla.org
many revs to finally strike that balance of a component based
framework where similar levels of collaborative participation and
interaction between end users and the masses of interested
developers began to occur. Now the core communities are finally at
that point where they can make that important shift from
“application” focus, to focus on an integrated productivity
“environment.” One that developers can reliably target with
solutions that mesh without barrier into the information processing
systems. Meshing without compromising user ownership. The recent
announcement by OOo and Mozilla communities that they would
cooperate on perfecting an integrated solution is the first sign
that we are entering a new era, the era of the portable rich client
environment. The era of interoperability above the distro.

The Shadow of a Monopolist:

I was fortunate to attend the informal JavaONE meeting hosted by
Simon and Tim Bray, and referenced in Simon’s article. Curtis
Sasaki (Vice President of Engineering, Desktop Solutions Sun
Microsystems, Inc
), and Peder Ulander (Director of
Marketing, Desktop Solutions Group Sun Microsystems, Inc
)
presented the Java Desktop System. I hope Simon writes about other
aspects of the discussion that took place. The issue of Sun
providing a “portable JDS” environment is very important to anyone
wrestling with the myriad difficulties of devising workable
migration strategies. Strategies that start with an ownership
empowering slide into a OOo/Moz/SleepyCat style productivity
environment (JDS) that can also interoperate and transparently
connect with Linux Server based alternatives. From there it’s easy
for a solution provider to recommend that new computer purchases be
based on JDS. Knowledge workers will hardly know the difference.
Businesses will save money. Ownership and independence will be
achieved through a graceful transition away from vested legacy
systems critical to ongoing business processes.

Sun desired to present the JDS as a solid desktop system, sold
at the right price, backed by credible service and support. IIRC,
Simon’s “editing” comments were made in response to two blanketing
suspicions. The first was that of the JDS as an alternative to
Microsoft. Not the Windows desktop, but an alternative to Microsoft
the juggernaut. The second was the basic “how open is open”
concerns about the JDS. Sun itself has raised this concern by
making comparisons to Red Hat. Accusing Red Hat of proprietary
lock-in, of devising methods that lock applications into their
proprietary configurations of Linux.

Simon’s “editing” comments were originally intended to deflect
the accusation that Sun would similarly use the JDS as a
proprietary stalking horse. A Gatesian trap waiting to be sprung on
hapless developers and easily blinkered computational consumers. In
addressing these suspicions, Simon argued that all Sun had done was
to carefully “edit” existing open source components, selecting the
best of breed, trimming the graphical interface, and introducing
simplified systems management features that in no way compromised
the stacks high substitution ratios that customers value so
much.

Sun’s record with OSS is that of an honest broker. While their
not 100% open source in everything they do, where they have engaged
open source communities it has been with honest intentions and
openly transparent contributions. Incredible contributions! And
they haven’t deceived or ticked anyone. Yet, they can’t do anything
without first answering to persistent suspicions. Maybe that’s a
good thing. The price of freedom being eternal vigilance. I only
wish the standard were equally applied to everyone.

One thing’s for sure. Microsoft has truly poisoned the water.
It’s near impossible to present a highly engineered system without
someone (everyone) accusing you of secretly setting a Gatesian
trap. Nobody wants to get caught in another trap where the cost,
effectiveness, and capabilities of their information systems are
hostage to the arbitrary permissions, limited provisioning, and
restrictive licensing methods of a single vendor.

Ownership. It’s a good thing.

Gary Edwards is an OpenOffice.org volunteer serving on the
OASIS Open Office XML TC

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