Why open source projects are not publicised

Open source behind closed doors: In the first of a two part series ZDNet looks at why some open source projects remain secret

"Lots of companies are using our products, they just aren't talking about it", is a popular excuse from software companies, particularly those that offer open source software and services.

Deployment of open source software, particularly in the private sector, often appears to be a clandestine activity, with few companies prepared to discuss their involvement.

Just last month at an OASIS conference in London, Erwin Tenhumberg, a product marketing manager at Sun's Client Systems Group, stood up to say that the open source productivity application OpenOffice.org was being deployed around the world, but noted that "a lot of people do not want to talk about it." Similarly Mozilla Europe president Tristan Nitot, tantalised the audience at an open source developer conference earlier this year by saying he knows companies that have deployed the Firefox browser or Thunderbird mail client across 100,000 seats. Again, these companies were unwilling to talk about it.

12,000 desktops
Eva Brucherseifer, general manager of Basyskom, a German consultancy that works with companies migrating to open source on the desktop, agrees that companies are often reluctant to discuss open source: "There are quite a lot of migrations going on that nobody knows about," she says. "The biggest migration that we're working on is to 12,000 desktops, but they don't want to talk about it, at least at the moment."

Dave Neary, a director of GNOME Foundation sees a similar story. For some reason, he says, the private sector just doesn't want to discuss open source... openly. "I know of cases where there are a large number of computers installed with free software and it isn't getting into the press."

For more, read part two of our special report on open source migrations: Open source projects: Why it pays to keep quiet.

While the apparent secrecy around open source seems unusual, there is a precedent for companies not wanting to discuss large migrations. Companies are generally reluctant to publicise any migration from a large vendor, if they are still using some of that vendors products, says Shaun Connolly, the vice-president of product management at open source software firm JBoss.

"If a company uses a lot of IBM products and migrates to another application server, then a political thing comes into play. Whether they are switching to BEA or JBoss doesn't matter — they are reluctant to publicise as they still have to maintain a relationship with IBM," Connolly says.

Migrations shouldn't be seen or heard
One of the catch-all explanations frequently rolled out to explain why companies are reluctant to talk about software deployments is competitive advantage. "If a company is using an open source product for a new application and is reaping some kind of financial reward from doing it, or is making its business more streamlined, it won't want its rivals knowing about it," says open source developer Salim Fadhley, who works as an IT contractor in London.

The 'what's in it for me' argument is also an important one. Unless an organisation deploying open source is a technology vendor, there is little competitive advantage in going public about any IT they are using, as the publicity is unlikely to help either their revenue or brand. "Most of the time organisations have no good reason to publicise migrations — they can see the cons, but not the pros," says Mozilla Europe's Nitot.

No such thing as bad publicity?
In fact with open source, there is often the risk of more bad publicity than good. Proprietary software companies, such as Microsoft, are keen to highlight the negative aspects of open source projects. For example, at a Gartner Symposium last year Microsoft...

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...chief executive Steve Ballmer seized on the setbacks facing Munich's Linux migration.

"Yes, we lost the city of Munich," said Ballmer at the time. "But the fact that the same story gets told 65,000 times and there's still only one customer and they're still — how do I use a good, polite word here? — they're still diddling around to some degree to try to decide when they're really going to do the migration."

Some organisations do not publicise migrations as they don't want to run the risk of getting caught up in "Microsoft's FUD campaign", according to Georg Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe.

Brucherseifer says it's not just Microsoft that could seize on negative publicity — the open source community can also retaliate against problems with a migration, by posting hostile comments on blogs or forums.

"You can't plan everything with a migration — there's always a user who says this doesn't work for me. If the press talks to them it can lead to flaming," says Basyskom's Brucherseifer.

Negative publicity
The risk of negative publicity is particularly high if a migration is publicised before it is completed. Gerd Armbruster, who is managing an extensive migration to open source software at the city of Mannheim says that even though the project began last year, the decision was taken not to release the details to the press until last month, when the first stage of the migration was almost complete.

"For us it was very important that we could finish the migration before we went public — we wanted to present a success story. I wanted to be able to say, 'Mannheim has changed its whole infrastructure and it works'" says Armbruster.

Announcing pilot projects – even though they are seen as low-risk – can actually cause a lot of unwanted problems according to Neary from the GNOME Foundation. "Announcing a pilot can come back and bite you in the ass if you have to announce a year later that you're discontinuing," he says.

But it's not only the press that organisations are wary of. Some companies even choose to hide open source migrations from their own employees. "Most employees these days are used to proprietary software such as Microsoft. If you tell them it's different, they can get put off without even trying it. I've met CIOs who have said 'this is the new version of Word', when they've installed OpenOffice and people have swallowed it."

Open source — the poorer cousin
The silence that surrounds some open source deployments is not always intentional however. For some companies it comes down to a lack of resources — they may want to promote a project but when it comes down to it they don't have the money or personnel to make it happen. "The difference between open source and proprietary software is that no-one pays to make a huge hype around open source," says developer Fadhley.

For more, read part two of our special report on open source migrations: Open source projects: Why it pays to keep quiet.

Mozilla's Nitot agrees that open source vendors often don't have the resources to encourage customers to come out and talk about how good a product is. "A software vendor in the proprietary space has marketing teams that are going to write success stories. It costs a lot of money to do this — you will probably have to give the organisation a rebate and have to pay someone to write and publicise the story. In open source we can't do that, or not as much."