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Innovation

Reputation key to success in an open source world

Reputation, as an asset, grows in importance the more our business is done online, because other forms of lock-in drift away. Reputation is a prejudice based on personal experience, your knowledge of others' experience, and (to an extent) the company's advertising, marketing, and public relations.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

For two generations the key to success in computing has been "lock-in."

(Picture from the 2000 film, filmed in Atlanta, "Remember the Titans." From Monsters & Critics.)

Companies have fought to protect their power over customers by protecting their intellectual property from use by others. IBM's hardware monopoly in the 1950s and Microsoft's software monopoly of the 1990s spring from the same tree.

Lock-in doesn't require a monopoly to be real. You can argue Oracle does not have a monopoly in databases. But it does have lock-in, and its profits are based on that lock-in.

The search for lock-in goes on. It has moved from hardware to software to data formats. Where does it lie in an open source world?

That world has two hemispheres, it seems to me.

On the enterprise side it lies, as Matt Asay writes, precisely where it does in proprietary software. The cost of conversion gradually rises as a system grows more complex, so that a lower price, or even no price, can't cause the customer to switch. That's lock-in.

On the consumer side, I think it rides more on reputation. Microsoft's reputation hampers its ability to sell online services, even free online services, and it has for years. Google's good reputation is its most important asset in this regard and Apple's reputation within its niche is made of iron.

Reputation in this case creates lock-in. Your preference for Firefox over Microsoft Internet Explorer, or Google Chrome, may be based less on features than on your feelings about the maker. The same is true in other niches where open source competes for consumer attention.

There is a cycle to corporate reputation. As companies grow it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a positive reputation. We like the underdog.

I'm old enough to remember when WalMart and Microsoft were underdogs, against Sears and IBM respectively. Their positive reputations helped get them through those fights, but now both face enormous push-back, in part because of their size.

As Google has grown, and as Apple's share within niches like music players and phones has become enormous, both have also faced challenges to their reputations. They can easily be found in any talkback thread here. Google is evil, a threat to privacy, some say. Apple practices lock-in and seeks monopoly, others say.

Reputation, as an asset, grows in importance the more our business is done online, because other forms of lock-in drift away. Reputation is a prejudice based on personal experience, your knowledge of others' experience, and (to an extent) the company's advertising, marketing, and public relations.

In the end, then, the lock-in of reputation is put best by Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans.

Who's your daddy? In an open source world, you decide. [poll=108]

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