Open source doesn't forget

Summary:Proprietary firms can end contracts, change contracts, close off upgrades, and that's business. Open source firms can't, because what's dropped can easily be forked, and because they rely so heavily upon the kindness of strangers.

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My recent Novell post got some private push-back from a Novell spokesman who insisted that I was being harsh.

Maybe I was. Some of the events I referenced in my response went back decades. Novell has invented and re-invented itself many times over the years, but past market failures aren't easily forgotten.

One way to deal with memory is through a name change. I often get press releases from small open source vendors along this line. New name, same guys. Forget what we did before, this time we really mean it.

Corporate witness protection isn't available to larger firms. Thus we have Linus Torvald's continuing antipathy to Sun Microsystems. Fool me twice, won't get fooled again. Changing the stock ticker won't erase Linus' Scott McNealy nightmares. (McNealy still runs Sun's federal contracting arm.)

Some companies, of course, can't help stepping in it constantly. They're just too big. Witness Microsoft, whose twin strategies of pushing Open XML as a standard while seeking OSI recognition for its licenses has drawn the ire of Eric Raymond. Left hand, meet right hand.

All this brings up key questions of credibility and memory.

I have long believed credibility to be the coin of the realm in open source, far more so than in a proprietary operation. Trust is needed to build a community, to draw contributions, and to gain commitments for enterprise installations. It's as important as capital, certainly more important than marketing.

Proprietary firms can end contracts, change contracts, close off upgrades, and that's business. Open source firms can't, because what's dropped can easily be forked, and because they rely so heavily upon the kindness of strangers.

I suspect many marketers, public relations experts and even executives entering open source for the first time don't understand this point. They want to be judged on what they say today, and only today.

Sorry, folks. New rule. Open source doesn't forget.

Topics: Open Source, Software

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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