Open Source in 2010: Questions to Be Answered

January 2, 2010

Even in the hollows of Kentucky, folks know that open source software is a useful technical option. Now some of my neighbors rely on open source when they grab their mobile device and text a pal about the squirrel that fell victim to a spurt from a semi automatic shotgun. Others at the few big companies still in business may use open source on their portable computer or maybe on a software system at work. The problem is that the knowledge of open source is hazy, but the phrase “open source” resonates in the Commonwealth. That is a step forward.

The Google is in the open source camp or at least on its outskirts. Big Blue as we call UK around these parts relies to some degree on IBM hardware and software. IBM is in the open source camp or maybe trying to buy up adjacent chunks of territory around open source. (One example is Rational and its use of Lucene in ClearQuest.) In fact, quite a few tech companies have been bitten by the open source flea.

I read a link sent to me by one of my two or three readers in the Bits blog, which is part of the New York Times empire. The article was “Seeking Profit in Open Source Search and Software” by Ashlee Vance. There were some interesting points in that write up that struck me a somewhat one sided, but more of that in a moment.

The article is a mini case about a company called Lucid Imagination. I don’t know too much about the company because my view of open source has been influenced by the Tesuji.eu and Lemur Consulting approaches. Here are the items that caught my attention:

  • Lucid has landed some big name companies, including Zappos.com (a unit of Amazon) and AT&T (famous for not selling the iPhone in New York city a week or so ago)
  • Lucene is a decade old and there are about 10,000 downloads a week. Lucene is an open source search system which is available from Lucid as a package, obviating the need to hunt around for various software bits and pieces
  • A Lucid support contract sells for something in the range of $12,000 to $50,000, depending on customer requirements. The idea is that Lucene is less expensive than signing up for one of the proprietary commercial search and content processing systems. (I think I have seen some pretty compelling products from other vendors in this price range, however.)
  • Lucid Imagination is “in the millions of dollars in revenue.”

The write up is useful.

I then flipped back to the Datamation write up called “Open Source in 2010: Nine Predictions”. Bruce Byfield’s view is also interesting. He begins with an important comment:

Everything always happens ten times faster in open source than in mainstream computing, but, even by open source standards, 2010 promises to be an interesting year. We can take for granted, I think, that open source will continue to gain popularity. 2010 will not be the fabled Year of the Linux Desktop, but we should continue to see the same slow, steady increase in adoption of the past decade.

This passage suggests that companies in the open source game may have a banner year in 2010. The odd thing is that in his write up he does not mention search and content management, two areas where the hyperbole strikes me as significant.

Several observations:

First, search and content processing and I may as well toss in content management are not perceived as mainstream software applications. Each may be more like utilities on steroids. Other sectors like mobile device use of open source may have more perceived lift. If money is the name of the game, search and content related applications may not light up the pundits’ radar.

Second, the notion of “free” plus for-fee support is interesting, but it may not be enough to build out a Google-scale business. Once again this begs the question of potential market size. An open source company will have to do more to ignite some Wall Street analysts’ kitchen match. Millions buys a condo. Billions warrants attention. Search with the exception of Google has not made the kitchen matches flame. Bright stars like Autonomy and Endeca, when compared to the likes of Google, may be tough to see.

Third, to get big money, open source must become more like commercial software. In that field of play, in my experience, the keys to success are proprietary code, lock in, predatory pricing, and certifying professionals who man the Maginot line against intruders from other outfits. If I am right, then open source software in general and search in particular will have to find a way to breakthrough these virtual walls.

I am neither for or against open source software. Google plays its open source cards carefully, and I have noted in my talks that not all of Google’s technology is open sourced. In fact, Google is a pretty clever outfit, not a pure open source outfit either. Which open source company is a poster child for the tenets of “openness”?

I think answers to this question may be put forth in 2010. I just don’t know what those answers are, nor does the New York Times or Datamation. Wide open field, right?

Stephen E. Arnold, January 2, 2010

Oyez, oyez, I report officially to the Marine Mammal Commission that open source may be neither fish nor fowl.

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