Blurred Lines: How Open-Source Makes For-Profit Companies Better

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When it comes to technology professionals, topics tend to dissolve into the equivalent of existential religious debate. Windows or Linux … Mac or PC … hosting or cloud … Android or iOS … and inevitably, commercial software or open-source? But that’s changing. Because in the long run, the only thing the market wants and the only thing that businesses want if for the technology to work, run fast, be secure, and be easy to use … and even a little entertaining if we can get away with it.

And programs and platforms have come so very far that we can objectively say that – in most cases – there is no best “what/where/how,” there is only which is better for the specific application or purpose. And it is this realization that has started to blur the lines between all of the deep-dive arguments into epistemological tech nuance. What all of us tech pros now know – and what some forward-thinking company leaders are realizing (thanks goodness) – is that so-called open-source products have a profitable home in big corporations and big corporations have valuable contributions to make to open-source.

Open-Source Biases Baked In

A big part of the problem is the built-in biases that got baked into the collective psyche of the tech industry early on:

Open-source proponents were viewed as tie-dye wearing neo-socialist utopians who didn’t understand the economic forces that allowed decent pizza to be delivered to their parent’s basement in 30-minutes or less, let alone the supply-chain and margins required to assemble their beloved MacBooks.

For-profit technologist were viewed as SUV-driving greedy imperialists seeking to keep technology away from the common man by investing as much in patent and copyright attorney fees as they did in chipping away virus-ridden, Neolithic code on their mono-chromatic pcs from within sterile, life-sucking corporate office cubicles.

Come to think of it … back in the 1990s and early 2000s there was probably a bit of truth to both of those descriptions. But we are just not “there” any more. And the truth is, whether you get your caffeine from Mountain Dew or a Starbucks soy latté and whether you like your pizza made gluten free with organic milk mozzarella or prefer the Meat-lovers special from Pizza Hut, we all want technology solutions that are safe, secure, fast, resource efficient, and have a beautiful UI.

And here’s where things are coming together nicely. Because – left to its own devices, unencumbered by the meddling hands of governmental officials – markets try to find the “best” path all on their own. What we have now is a VERY interesting marketplace where even the most sophisticated technology platforms are hybrids of both proprietary and open-source projects.

Even Microsoft Has Changed in Amazing Ways

Historically, Microsoft has been the prototypical corporate behemoth of old-school stuffiness. Remember all those Mac vs PC commercials back in the late 2000s? They were effective and funny because there was a thread of truth, at least in reputation. But Microsoft is hip again. And they’ve begun supporting hundreds of open-source projects on their Azure public cloud; embraced open-source in deep and meaningful ways through cash investment, sponsoring events; and – shockingly – even opened up large swaths of their treasure trove of patent-protected and proprietary applications and solutions to free use and development by the open-source community. In fact, as of 2016 Microsoft has more employees making contributions to GitHub projects than any other company.Team Image

On the flip side, some of the largest open-source projects have come to understand that making a profit … and you know, actually hiring employees and providing benefits … is not a bad thing. These open-source projects have found a balance for their open-source principles and economic realities that really seems to work. RedHat makes a very good living servicing enterprise Linux installations all over the world. Automattic supports their open-source WordPress as a “free” Content Management System (CMS) and other open-source projects, but has nearly 700 full-time employees funded through advanced products, services, and hosting. And ASP.NET’s most popular CMS – DNN – has a full-featured Platform version available as open source and supported by the community. These projects have been so successful that most other open-source platforms have adopted a similar model.

And yes, I know that “open-source” is NOT the same thing as “free.” But this hybrid model has shifted the entire landscape of software and services around the world over the last fifteen years. It’s fundamentally shaped what has come to be called the “freemium” model – where a basic or user-limited version of the software or service can be used for free for an unlimited amount of time, but larger installations have a fee that supports the entire organization.

The marketplace drove all of this. And the marketplace is starting to see some real, significant side benefits. If you are missing out on these benefits, you may find yourself at a competitive disadvantage.

Experiment, Participate and Contribute to Gain the Benefits of Open-Source

You do not have to be a “tech” company to benefit from allowing experimentation and participation with open-source solutions. If you have a tech department staffed with modern, intelligent, code-loving teams I have a news flash for you – they are already experimenting with open-source projects at home in their spare time. Here’s why:

  • Low Risk – since open-source projects are, by definition, open and usually free there is little or no cost in downloading and experimentation.
  • Open-source is Leading Edge – even the most profitable businesses and products today started as or are built upon open-source frameworks, apps, and platforms.
  • Skill Sets – since there is low risk and the developments are modern and interesting, it’s a great way for a coder to keep his skills up to date.

What doesn’t make sense is for a business to spend tons of financial resources to implement skills training when tech teams will learn willingly and eagerly if given the opportunity to simply experiment with the latest projects in their field. Not just allowing, but encouraging your team to experiment, participate, and contribute to these projects will not only keep their skills sharp, but it’s a point of motivation. It’s a real win-win.

How Your Company Can Immediately Participate and Benefit

There are a ton of open-source projects that have real-world applications that generate business value. Dozens of the world’s top business technology companies openly encourage their employees and teams to participate for all of the reasons we have listed here – from Microsoft to Google, and from Adobe to IBM and Intel. And there are tons of ways to participate and literally hundreds of projects to work with. Here are some great examples with business value:

Microsoft ASP.NET Core Preview

ASP.NET Core is a cross-platform, high-performance, open-source framework from Microsoft for building modern, cloud-based, and Internet-connected applications. It is really ground-breaking stuff (you can read our overview here). Every few months a new release candidate is made available for testing. Encouraging your team to run testing versions and report of their results can keep them up to speed on the latest – and fastest – applications coming out of Redmond, but can also help them recognize how to bring points of increased efficiency to your technology stack without impacting budgets.

Microsoft has literally hundreds of other open-source projects, and all of them have business value. You can access a list of them here.

DNN and Beyond – Content Management Systems

Most organizations have at least one big, public-facing website and several other departmental web portals, intranets, and specialty sites. Odds are, more than one of these web assets is built upon an open-source Content Management System (CMS). These CMS platforms need regular updating and maintenance, and most of that is done by the community of businesses and individual users of the project. Participating in bug identification, module creation, and even core contributions can transform a team of “users” into platform experts with access to resources and other community members.

You can access the DNN Open-source projects on GitHub here.

Hardware – Intel and Cisco

Both intel and Cisco have entire departments dedicated to supporting open source projects. Many of these projects end up in production product releases, bringing real value. If you have a team that is managing hardware, both companies have open-source projects that will build skills and employee value. You can find Intel’s open-source resources here, and Cisco’s here.

Thanks for reading. As always, if you have any questions, just shoot us a note. We are always happy to help.