Have the vendor open source companies ruined it for the rest of us and if so what do we call ourselves now?

by Matt Hamilton on Dec 17, 2010

Firstly, I need to credit Dylan Jay for the excellent title of a talk he did, which I have pinched for this blog post. I have recently been reading "Confessions of a Public Speaker" by Scott Berkun, a fantastic book on speaking and presentations. One point he talks about is titles to talks, and how being 2a bit controversial will get people more excited. I very much hope that Dylan's talk was well attended, even if the vendor open source people didn't show up.

Dylan made some fantastic comments on my previous blog post and rather than just follow up there, I thought the issues should be given their own separate blog post in which we can discuss them further. So go read Dylan's comments, then come back here.

Both Dylan and I have come to the realisation that the Plone project and its community is pretty unique amongst not only its market (CMS / WCM) but also amongst Open Source projects as a whole. So far we have been 'selling' Plone as 'An Open Source Content Management System' in which the main USP is the fact that it is Open Source. I've previously said that I think that Open Source is the natural state that all Content Management Systems are going to eventually tend towards, as the nature of their implementation and the complex issues surrounding licensing (per user? per processor? what about virtual cores? external users?) mean that more and more CMS vendors are going to find their commercial license model harder to operate.

So the point being that over time just being 'Open Source' is not going to be enough to market Plone as it will no longer be a USP as all CMSs will be Open Source. I've talked about this previously. Not only that, but Plone is a fantastic system in its own right, regardless of its licensing structure, and I think deserves to be marketed on its strengths and features (ease of use, flexibility, security, etc) not just the fact it is Open Source.

Dylan raises a great point in his comment:

"...but really the root of the problem is that Open source was used to promote a set of perceived benefits that the term itself doesn't ensure. "We" the community created a brand that we couldn't protect. All open source actually means is that the code you can see the code."

He is right. "Open Source" technically just means that something is licensed under a license that is approved by the OSI. And there are many vendors of CMSs that are now technically "Open Source" - Squiz, Alfresco, Day, Nuxeo, ezPublish. However, in the Plone community, we have always described Open Source as more than just a license, but more of a business process -- a system, a methodology. Dylan's colleague Virginia Choy introduced me a few years ago to the concept of the 'bus number' -- this being how many people have to be hit by a bus to kill a project. With Plone, this is a very high number as the development is spread so wide with no real single point of failure. Even if you compare Plone to its nearest rival in terms of community Open Source content management, Drupal, Plone has over 350 core committers, whereas Drupal has less than ten. With 'commercial' CMS vendors then this number can be much less, or at least less diverse. ie. if Alfresco (the company) suddenly went bust then 90% of the contributors to their project would suddenly be unemployed. It would probably also take down their source control, bug trackers, mailing lists. And then there would be the issue of trademarks etc. Alfresco requires copyright assignment to them of any contributions made to the project. So does Plone, but the 'vendor' in this case is the Plone Foundation a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organisation with an elected board of directors from the Plone community.

So how do 'we', the Plone community, encapsulate all of that in one two or three word term to describe what it is we do? I've never quite liked the term 'commercial open source' as Dylan points out, what does that mean? Netsight is a commercial company, and we pay our developers by customers paying us to deploy, customise and extend Plone. So is PretaWeb, Dylan's company. So are hundreds of other companies out there who make up the Plone ecosystem. In fact this is one of the things that immediately stands out about the Plone community over many other open source project communities in general. Plone developers and companies are a very talented, mature, and pragmatic bunch. For instance compared to many other Open Source projects, you find hardly any flame wars and jostling of egos that you might find on the lists of other projects. I think this comes from the fact that as well as develop code, most of the people in the Plone community have direct contact with customers that pay their wages. Squiz uses the term 'Supported Open Source' which I think becomes just as misleading as it infers that other Open Source projects are not supported. Instead of being just one 'Plone Inc.' there are hundreds of companies you can get support from and hence can find one local to you or who work directly in your sector.

Dylan suggests the term 'Open Development', which I really quite like the idea of. Some points he makes in support of this term:

  • Open development means faster security patching.
  • Open development means your investment in the product lost easily through acquisitions or strategic product decisions.
  • Open development means you can influence the roadmap.
  • Open development means your support is often local.
  • Open development means there is a direct relationship between those that make the product and those that work with customers.
  • Open development means greater innovation through diversity in inputs.
  • Open development means good governance of a project because you have to when work as a distributed team.
  • Open development means better code because it's worked on by people who love it.

I think there points are great, and really illustrate the point that with Open Development the balance of power is further shifted away from one central point and more towards the end users of the systems.

So what do you think? Do we need to look at adopting a new term for the work we do?

Shaun Hills
Shaun Hills says:
Dec 17, 2010 01:15 PM

My initial reaction is a +1. Speaking as someone who's - at least slightly - on the procurement and customer side of the fence, vendors make a lot of noise about "open source" in terms of decreased license costs.

But that's old news. People have known for the last 5 years that open source is cheap. And for many projects, license cost is really only an issue if you're doing something large or complex. For instance I'm fond of pointing out the low marginal cost of multiple Plone deployments even though the initial cost is actually as high as many competing systems. I need to come up with a new meme.

Anyway... for systems such as CMS which can become integral to your business processes, customers Alice and Bob are also interested in customisation and what type of support they can get. Or if they're not, they should be and the vendor should try and get that idea across to them ;-)

This is perhaps the difference between selling an isn't-it-cool technology and selling a "solution". People deploy isn't-it-cool technology themselves. But people *buy* solutions, despite it being a waffle-word. If anyone didn't see Calvin's talk at this year's conference, go grab the video.

It seems to me that the points Matt and Dylan have raised are a good USP for Plone. And perhaps one that the community could capitalise on.

Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton says:
Dec 17, 2010 02:17 PM

Shaun, a good point about 'solution' vs 'technology'. I guess most Open Source projects develop out of the scratch your own itch process, and so are focussed on the technology. Realising that to sell that technology you need to actually sell solutions is something that many in the open source world (ourselves included) are potentially quite late in realising.

If you look at the Vendor Open Source systems: Alfresco, Nuxeo, Day, etc I think they are all started/run by people who are business people first, not techies (or have had significant business experience).

They have a business model they are trying to achieve and Open Source is part of that, but the business did not itself rise out of Open Source.

Jens W. Klein
Jens W. Klein says:
Dec 17, 2010 01:51 PM

To explain the nature of Plone I often call it a "business community" backed CMS, supported by several hundreds of companies worldwide. I think this explains good the kind of professionalism Plone makes unique.

Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton says:
Dec 17, 2010 02:13 PM

Yes, that explains the community behind the software, but I think we still need a phrase to describe the actual process by which the software is developed ie Open Development.

Then again... as I read somewhere before, the automotive industry doesn't sell cars by saying they are manufactured using Lean Engineering. They sell cars because they have feature X or Y. Or its probably more basic than that, judging by car adverts on TV. They sell cars because they give you freedom and fun, or match your handbag or something.

So at the end of the day, do we even need to say 'Open Development' when selling Plone? Do the end people procuring the software care? I guess the analogy with a car buyer is not quite right. I guess the analogy is probably closer to an automotive fleet manager. They have 200 vehicles to manage and so things like garage turnaround time, spare parts, quality, process tracking etc is important to them... not just the payload, economy and speed of the vehicles they purchase.

However, if you look at things like 'green' features on every product out there now... my gut feeling is a lot of those are just to help differentiate the product from its competitors. Ie. if I have a choice of two different vacuum cleaners to buy and all things being equal one of them is touted at 'greener than others' then I'd probably pick that one.

Is content management the same? There are two products out there, X and Y and both can do roughly the same thing and total cost of implementation is similar. If one of them is 'Open Development' does that mean a purchaser might go for that one? Maybe if we can get Dylan's points above articulated then maybe they would.

Jens W. Klein
Jens W. Klein says:
Dec 17, 2010 02:25 PM

First we sell a CMS. Well there are plenty around. So we need to make a difference. Whats that difference? It is easy to use (other are good here too), scalable, secure (!) and have fine-grained access control on all levels, (..more..) This is all technical. But we can sell our customers the feeling to be part of an Open Business Community. You may not reach every customer with this feeling, true, but it makes us unique. As you said, theres no such open project as Plone is around in CMS-ecosystem - and I see it as a bonus.

Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton says:
Dec 17, 2010 02:18 PM

Actually... as if by magic, just seen this article by Matt Asay on the Register:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/12/17/open_source_year_in_review/

In which he covers quite a few of the same ideas. Open Source in itself is becoming ubiquitous to the point of no longer being a selling point.

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 17, 2010 02:38 PM

The only reason how something is built like Plone matters is there is no one "company" and that's weird to people. In the examples of cars above all car companies produce cars in roughly the same way so there is no differentiator there. But if it turned out you could make a better car by several companies collaborating, and then they competed with the normal car manufactures then I they'd use that as a brand differentiator. "we built the best car by bringing the best people in the world together" or something like that.

Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton says:
Dec 17, 2010 02:54 PM

I agree. But playing devil's advocate here... do the customers *really* care? Yes you can say it is the best car in the world, but they care that it is better, not what manufacturing model or business practise got them the best car.

You say all companies make cars the same way. They didn't used to, when Toyota started doing Lean manufacturing that was a very very different approach to the others. But does the customer care? Not really... only by virtue of the fact that the car is cheaper, and they can have it built-to-order.

Actually... built-to-order is one of our key selling points with Open Source, in that we say we can deliver you a solution and we use the flexibility of Open Source to build that solution. The fact we can mix and match pieces or just use a small part of something without having to buy a license for the whole thing certainly is key to that.

I do like your sentiment about bringing the best people in the world together. That *is* what we do with Plone, and it is fairly unique. Listen to the FLOSS Weekly Podcast on Alfresco and around the 20 minute mark Simon Phipps really puts home that true innovation only happens with getting diverse people in.

So maybe that is the direction Plone should focus its marketing effort on 'Plone. Built By the Best People in the World'?

Steve McMahon
Steve McMahon says:
Dec 17, 2010 05:03 PM

Let's not forget that "customers" can have a wider meaning. The "customers" for an open-source CMS are not just the end-user organizations, they are also the integrators / developers / designers who build the ecosystem.

Will end-user orgs care? That may be asking too much. But, integrators / developers / designers who build an investment in the development community should care a lot. Let's pitch "open development" to them.

Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton says:
Dec 18, 2010 12:48 PM

That is a very good point. We've learned in the past that it can be easy to alienate developers. I'm hoping that the 'people of Plone' message can work for integrators / developers / designers as well. Perhaps even more so than end customers.

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 22, 2010 11:48 PM

Thats very true. in the same barcamp was a guy discussing his decisions to open source a project management tool they were working on. Their plan was to retain the trademark and copyright, but for me to want to contribute anything major to it without it being run as a true open development it would have to be a very special project. Otherwise, why bother?
Promoting ourselves to developers is very important, if not more important now. We have a more cohesive, less confusing platform we need to work out how to sell it to new developers.

In terms of customers, I think that some customers care. For instance the government is getting increasingly interested in open source with some governments mandating it in certain tenders. In part this is maybe the reason in the rise of vendor open source companies like Squiz which make a lot of their money from government.
If we can educate them that open development is safer than just open source then that should help our industry.

Godefroid Chapelle
Godefroid Chapelle says:
Dec 19, 2010 09:50 AM

Ecology (the science - not the ideology) studies show more and more how cooperative organisms fit better than competitive ones. In other words, I think that selling the community aspect is very important.

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 17, 2010 03:07 PM

Interesting article but I think the real reason open source has become invisible is that reporting is about reporting economic successes. Heros. That means individual people or organisations. Open source didn't turn out to be a great way to make single companies really rich. So no heros. In reality it makes lots of companies money, rather than concentrating that wealth to just one. Pity that seems so hard to put into a success story. Jointly the Plone industry does pretty well I think.

Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton says:
Dec 17, 2010 03:22 PM

Indeed. We need to somehow get better reporting. There is some information submitted to plone.net when a new provider signs up, but the information is not kept up-to-date. After the Plone Conference in DC I did discuss with a few people about doing a 'Plone Census' to gather this information on a regular basis, but we never had time to actually do it. Maybe we should revive the idea.

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 17, 2010 03:27 PM

I was thinking maybe some of the money from the foundation could go to an independent auditor who'd ensure confidentiality.

Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton says:
Dec 17, 2010 03:32 PM

Actually that is a very good idea. I will try to remember to bring that up at the next Plone Foundation board call and see what we can do.

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 17, 2010 03:23 PM

Many customers care about risk, and in particular risk of obsolescence. Partly why the adage that you won't get fired for choosing IBM is because you are unlikely to be left holding a useless warranty or having no upgrade path or no one to customise your solution. Big companies make people feel safer, particularly successful ones. Our challenge is how to show you get exactly the same thing, or more with open development.

Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton says:
Dec 17, 2010 03:27 PM

Yes, this is an important point. And something alluded to with the bus factor. I think the fact there is the Plone Foundation is something very different to vendor open source products. I spoke to someone at Online Information who said their organisation was partway through the process of selecting Day as their CMS when it was bought by Adobe and they pulled out for fear of what might happen to the product.

Shaun Hills
Shaun Hills says:
Dec 17, 2010 04:11 PM

This is something I was alluding to with my comment about "solutions". It's a pretty intangible word, but if I was to generalise I'd say that many (count 'em) people look to a solution to remove risk, remove hassle, fix a specific business problem etc.

Now, at some level these people mightn't actually care that a product has a community-driven development process. I agree with Matt's devil's-advocate stance. But they might well end _up_ caring, if that fact gives some solution-based benefits. For example the risk of deploying the system is minimised because you're not tied to one vendor.

I personally think the Plone Foundation is a strong selling point in this regard. Someone owns the code and trademarks, so that's never going to go away. But you can go to whoever you want to get your tech support and consulting.

Alex Clark
Alex Clark says:
Dec 17, 2010 11:13 PM

I am very excited to see this conversation take place! But I don't think "open development" quite does it for me (as a way to describe what "we" do i.e. the Plone vendors.) The truth is "we" *are* a vendor open source company (i.e. the vendor collective). And the closest thing "we" have to a "real" company is the Plone Foundation. Plone.net is a good start at organizing and promoting the "low bus factor" Plone offers. Perhaps the PF just needs to spin up a process where all the Plone vendors are more formally aligned and marketed into something like a ZEA partners: http://www.zeapartners.org/partners (which is an awesome effort in and of itself BTW).

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 18, 2010 11:46 AM

Every so often I and others have brought up the idea of certification for plone companies. The answer I got back is that putting the foundation in the situation of choosing who is in and who is out isn't good for the health of the community. I think there is a lot of wisdom in that. Acquia has done a tremendous amount for drupal, but from talking to drupal people it has come at a cost. Now there is a them and us in the drupal world and there is a fear, should it be in aquia's interests they could take business away from the smaller companies and this could in the long run affect drupals popularity. Developers are fickle and without web developers CMS's are nothing.
Rather than centralise our "organisation" and potentially upset the balance that has worked for us so far, perhaps we are better to market and explain what we have, why it works and why this is the reason backing Plone is a safe bet.

Alex Clark
Alex Clark says:
Dec 18, 2010 12:36 PM

Agreed. I don't mean to suggest we should formalize to that level, just that the foundation might be able to take advantage of some pre-existing efforts (e.g. plone.net) to further market & "pimp" our uniqueness. Obviously in the Plone world, everyone that wants to be "in" is in. :-)

Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton says:
Dec 18, 2010 12:42 PM

As someone who has been involved with ZEA I can say that it has definitely not been easy sailing. It gets quite tricky trying to come up with a structure that is inclusive, fair but yet actually gets things done. That said the scope of what we are talking about is less than what ZEA tries to do.

I am just starting a process to get plone.net sorted out (for some definition of 'plone.net' and some definition of 'sorted out' ;) But the end goal being to have a better place to showcase the number of Plone companies, and sites worldwide.

And no, I don't think the Acquia model is right for us either.

Wouter Vanden Hove
Wouter Vanden Hove says:
Dec 18, 2010 04:39 PM

"Open Source Business Community" is definitely a term I really like as a new USP for Plone. I haven't heard of the term before, albeit I'm a FLOSS-evangelist for more then 10 years. I think it's a good match for Plone and Plone-related companies since Plone is easily overkill for small, low-budget webprojects, and a much higher percentage of the Plone-projects require professional involvement than WordPress or Joomla.

Maybe the criterium to be part of the Business Community could be based on the 10%-manifesto several Plone-companies have publicly announced to support. Subscribing to the manifesto publicly is less formal then a certification program, nobody has to approve anything, and it still allows non-profits and government organisations to take part in it when they have Plone-developers on their payroll.

The manifesto could be applied to customers as well, when awareness is raised that 10% of their spendings will be used to extend or bugfix Plone itself.

The 10%-manifesto is just saying "Hey, we pay someone to spend some of her (diversity, right?) time to maintain and further develop Plone, or we hire a Plone-company that does so."
This can solve the conundrum some decision-makers have of how a true open source project can be economically sustainable.
If you pay 50K in licenses for a proprietary product, then you are also paying a part of a developer's time (but just a really small part),
so why not pay these developers directly in an open development model?

Ian F. Hood
Ian F. Hood says:
Dec 20, 2010 04:30 PM

To non developers the word 'source' is associated with the code and less with the other connotations, like sources of developers and support. I would vote for using the plural to imply it's not just code: "Open Sources Business Community"

Godefroid Chapelle
Godefroid Chapelle says:
Dec 19, 2010 11:07 AM

Let's call ourselves Community Shared Development !

http://bubblenet.be/blog/community-shared-development

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 19, 2010 01:13 PM

I very much agree with having tight definition and open development is still vague.
However I've thought a lot about the word community and deliberately avoided it. A lot of people do use "community open source" to differentiate projects like us and unfortunately it has already to coopted within vendor open source. Many claim to have vibrant and collaborative communities. This normally means forums and possibly the ability to submit bugs and patches. Possibly user groups. Everyones definition of "community" is different.
Community is also something that means something to us, but not so much the customer. They are used to dealing with organisations, industries etc. Community doesn't seem to have the ring of an economic aim. You engage with communities by becoming part of one, but not buying services from them for instance.
Admittedly "open development" says nothing about how you interact with it either but it does kind of say that your development has to be open. I think the only real way to protect such a term is to trademark it and give a strict definition for it's use.
For the record, other terms I've tried out are "vendor neutral open source" and foundationware. Co-development is another word I've seen used which is good since it at least enshrines the idea of equality or at least two members. "open by rule" is another I've seen used. None are great names. Somewhere there is a really good term for businesses working togeather for a common goal that doesn't sound too hippie but perhaps we haven't thought of it yet :)

Ian F. Hood
Ian F. Hood says:
Dec 20, 2010 05:01 PM

By definition I think that's called a 'co-operative' though in North America that has the connotation of farmer's Co-op. The word that comes from your own description is "collaborative".

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 20, 2010 09:17 PM

"code co-op" :)

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 20, 2010 09:26 PM

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative?wasRedirected=true

I think the definition is close except it's still a single legal entity and we are not. The foundation is but that doesn't do any economic output. It's just a kind of protector.

It's actually like a "value added reseller network" except we also build the product as well.

Ian F Hood
Ian F Hood says:
Dec 20, 2010 10:01 PM

I suppose we could try "League of ExtraOrdinary Developers" but I'll have to get my cape dry-cleaned ;-)

Ian F. Hood
Ian F. Hood says:
Dec 22, 2010 06:15 PM

Whatever we come up with, if it's unique we should consider trademarking it so it doesn't get used (and diluted) by every other community of vendors.

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 22, 2010 11:17 PM

+100

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 22, 2010 11:19 PM

Well in that we should trademark and attach a strict definition so that other co-developed software could also use the definition but it can't be subverted.

Ian F Hood
Ian F Hood says:
Dec 23, 2010 01:40 AM

+100

Dylan Jay
Dylan Jay says:
Dec 19, 2010 01:39 PM

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commons-based_peer_production.
Another bad name for the same idea :)

Ian F Hood
Ian F Hood says:
Jan 21, 2011 09:53 PM

Just came across the acronym "CoI" for Community of Innovation
This wiki specifically cites Linux as an example:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communities_of_innovation

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