Why some open source crosses the chasm and some falls in

Summary:Important examples are to be found in the world of open source. Linux crossed the chasm on servers. It failed to do so on desktops. Yet Android, a Google-developed Linux distro, seems fated to succeed.

Matt Asay has a piece out today that praises Facebook, whose open source bonafides are under attack in the wake of its deliberate exposing of user data to advertisers.

I don't want to get into the Facebook argument. The results will be seen in the market over time.

I'm a lot more interested in the chart he got from Geoffrey Moore of The Chasm Group. Moore has been building a consulting practice on his 1993 book, Crossing the Chasm. (No discount from the paperback price for buying it on the Kindle. Sorry.)

Moore's subject is how products break out of niches and become mass market hits. We can all cite examples. The Apple Macintosh failed to cross the chasm, while the iPhone did.

The chasm is that point in the "s" curve where a product is known and liked by experts or aficionados, poised on the brink of mass market success or failure. Most products fall in. Why do some cross and others don't? That's Moore's study.

Important examples are to be found in the world of open source. Linux crossed the chasm on servers. It failed to do so on desktops. Yet Android, a Google-developed Linux distro, seems fated to succeed.

What gives?

Matt's point is there is a difference between what enthusiasts want and what the larger public will accept. There is an element of truth in this, although a consumer lemon can also be turned into b2b lemonade, as Harbinger EDI proved. (I helped write its first manual, when it was a home shopping system called The Promise.)

Some obvious elements in crossing the chasm are marketing, ease of use, and a compelling back story. All these are created through proprietary means, by investing heavily on Madison Avenue.

So how then do you explain Firefox? OK, the logo's cool, but the browser drew a 24% market share without any of the Madison Avenue elements you'd think would be essential. It was mostly word of mouse.

It should also be noted here that many open source projects have no need, nor desire, to cross the chasm. The companies behind them are happy with a business sale, based on features and functions. Most Adobe and Eclipse projects are of this type.

So what does it take for open source to cross the chasm? The Android story is illustrative. Android has a Sugar Daddy (Google), it has an obvious need (created by Apple) and it has friends (everyone who couldn't get into the iPhone game) who can get it across.

How many open source projects do you think might cross the chasm in the next few years, and why?

Topics: Open Source

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.

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.