FOSS Could Fix the ‘Broken’ Enterprise Software Model

It’s by no means uncommon here in the world of IT to hear it declared that one aspect or another of this world is “broken.”

To hear that charge made about something as fundamental as the way enterprise software is currently sold, however, is rare. That, however, is just what Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst asserted last week in a speech at Interop in New York.

“The business models between customer and vendors are fundamentally broken,” Whitehurst reportedly said. “Vendors have to guess at what [customers] want, and there is a mismatch of what customers want and what they get. Creating feature wars is not what the customer is looking for.”

‘Driven by a Need to Solve a Problem’

It wasn’t surprising to hear Whitehurst go on to promote open source software as a solution to many of the problems he saw in the traditional software sales model. “You are not buying functionality. You are buying services and support,” he reportedly said.

What was surprising, however, was the enthusiasm with which Linux bloggers sprang forth with their reactions. In fact, more than 200 comments greeted the topic on Slashdot, where blogger after blogger chimed in with an enterprise software story from their own experience.

“Actually, vendors that have their s**t together will listen to their customers,” Cylix began, for example.

“This morning I’m trying to push a feature we would like to see (rather need) for some hot backup operations,” Cylix added. “While we certainly do not drive the features from this particular vendor, they will at least listen. At heart, most software shops are driven by a need to solve a problem.”

‘Exorbitant Price Increases’

The anecdotes proceeded from there, so it wasn’t long before Linux Girl realized the topic had struck a chord too strong to ignore.

“It’s true. Software is one of the few things you can’t just switch out once you start using it, and unfortunately some software makers have taken advantage of that with exorbitant price increases, knowing their customers can’t change without disrupting their business,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told Linux Girl.

That, in turn, “is where FOSS comes in handy,” Mack added. “Support costs too much? Has the product you depend on been end-of-lifed? Odds are you can find someone else to support the product or, worst case, hire some programmers to take care of the software in-house.”

FOSS, in other words, “puts the control back into the customer’s hands,” Mack said.

‘The World Can Make Its Own’

“The model for selling non-free software is broken insofar as the world needs software and can make its own, especially for stuff that hundreds of millions of users run,” blogger Robert Pogson agreed.

“There will always be a niche for stuff to run particular hardware and systems, but that should just be included with the price of the system and not something to be printed like money,” he added.

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed that the model is broken, but argued that the FOSS model is too.

‘The FOSS Model Is Unsustainable’

“The model is broken, and I’d add the FOSS model in the long run is simply unsustainable,” hairyfeet asserted. “Why? Simple: Since you give away your code, what you end up with is begging, pure and simple. I already HAVE your code, I simply do NOT NEED you.

“I can hire a dozen Indians to maintain your code for me, with an added bonus of any changes I desire staying in-house, which means I do NOT have to give them to competitors,” hairyfeet added. “Look at Google, built on FOSS, yet all their best stuff like their distributed file system? You can NOT have it. Not the binary, not the source.”

In short, “you simply can’t make a long-term growing business out of giving everything away and hoping someone will pay you to support it, because I automatically gain an advantage over my competitors by NOT paying you, and instead paying someone in-house and keeping my changes,” he concluded.

‘It Could Be Improved’

As might be expected, however, not everyone saw it that way.

Calling the model broken “sounds like the kind of thing you say when your sales force is incompetent,” suggested Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza, for example.

Indeed, “I don’t think the model is broken,” agreed Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. However, “it certainly could be improved.”

FOSS ‘Does It Better’

Enterprise software vendors do a number of things very well, Travers explained.

For instance, “they generally provide solutions which can be readily customized,” he pointed out. They also “provide solutions which generally match what the customer wants, etc.”

What’s particularly significant, however, “is that the things that the current vendor model does well, Free/Open Source software does better,” Travers asserted. “The solutions tend to be more readily adaptable to customer needs, and the marketplace for the services is more competitive.”

In other words, “FOSS emulates the best parts of” the model, “while discarding those parts which get in the way,” Travers concluded.

A ‘Personal Cloud’ on the Laptop

Whitehurst started with faulty premises and came to a faulty conclusion, opined Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site.

“In the end, this is just another IT CEO doing his imitation of Fantasy Island, pointing upwards and saying, “the cloud … the cloud!”

What Whitehurst missed, however, is an even bigger shift, Hudson said: “the astounding leaps and bounds of local storage and computing power are going to make it so that everyone can carry their own personal cloud in their laptop.”

In fact, “now that Walmart can sell a 6 gigabyte laptop with a 640 gig hard disk for $498, people are going to change the way they think about their computers,” Hudson asserted.

‘Keeping Information In-House’

“Imagine never having to delete a file ever again,” she explained. “And when your laptop finally gets full 5 years down the road, either throw in another hard disk or buy an even better, faster laptop.

“People flocked to gmail because of the convenience of ‘never delete an email again’ — how will ‘never delete a file again’ change the way people use computers?” she asked. “You won’t need to worry about ‘cleaning up your computer,’ or having to store stuff ‘in the cloud’ — not when you can have it all with you, ready to share, all the time, without some 3rd party having control over it.”

Vendors may tout the “nebulous future benefits” of the cloud, but “every business can grasp the immediate value of keeping their own information in-house,” she added.

‘Business Will Take a While to Catch Up’

The future, then, will be built around “ultra-cheap local storage, dispersed throughout the organization, with an operating system that can be easily configured to provide different access rights to that shared data to different people, and to use all that extra cpu horsepower to find anything, anywhere fast,” Hudson concluded.

Consumers will embrace that future first, she predicted. “Business will take a while to catch up, just as they lagged behind at the start of the original PC revolution 29 years ago.”

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