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Seeking inspiration from OSDL CEO Stuart Cohen

If you want to make money in open source, look for needs first, solutions second.

Stuart CohenJBoss CEO Marc Fleury arranged an intimate lunch today between some key local clients and OSDL CEO Stuart Cohen.

He let me sit in.

Fleury was seeking inspiration, and hoped that as the customers sought answers to their smaller questions he might find answers to this larger quest.

Cohen ran through a host of open source issues -- patents, business models, licenses, Sun --  and where the OSDL fits in. It was not until nearly the end of the meeting, as we were finishing dessert, that inspiration suddenly struck.

Cohen was asked about desktop Linux. When most Americans think of that, he noted, they're really thinking about their laptops, and wondering when common office applications will have backward file compatibility with the Windows world. (The answer is not for a while.)

But that's not the only way to look at the problem. Your ATM is the equivalent of a desktop, and it runs Linux. In addition to its Desktop Linux task force the OSDL has a group studying Linux on mobile devices.

"One-third of our members now are from China, Korea and Japan," Cohen said. "They all access via phones. They leave their laptops on their desks and link to data on their phones."

And that was the inspiration, at least for me. OSDL's mobile group might best be called its desktop of the future group. Companies like Nokia are investing heavily in Linux-based mobile phones not so you can watch ESPN on them, but so you can link to your office files. If you're running thin clients on the desk so your office data really lives on servers, the phone becomes your desktop, and the "desktop" Microsoft has worked to dominate for a quarter-century becomes obsolete.

That's one vision of the future. It's not necessarily an American vision, but it's one a Java middleware company like JBoss may be able to sink its teeth into.

In the end, as with the history of OSDL itself, it's all about customer needs. Meet them and you will prosper. That was the answer I think Fleury was seeking, and it's a very good answer indeed. If you want to make money in open source, look for needs first, solutions second.