I recently attended Facebook’s F8 developer conference in San Francisco, where I had a revelation on why it is going to be impossible to succeed as a technology vendor in the long run without deeply embracing open source. Of the many great presentations I listened to, I was most captivated by the ones that explained how Facebook internally developed software. I was impressed by how quickly the company is turning such important IP back into the community.
To be sure, many major Web companies like Google and Yahoo have been leveraging open-source dynamics aggressively and contribute back to the community. My aim is not to single out Facebook, except that it was during the F8 conference I had the opportunity to reflect on the drivers behind Facebook’s actions and why other technology providers may be wise to learn from them.
Here are my 10 reasons why open-source software is effectively becoming inevitable for infrastructure and application platform companies:
- Not reinventing the wheel: The most obvious reason to use open-source software is to build software faster, or to effectively stand on the shoulders of giants. Companies at the top of their game have to move fast and grab the best that have been contributed by a well-honed ecosystem and build their added innovation on top of it. Doing anything else is suboptimal and will ultimately leave you behind.
- Customization with benefits: When a company is at the top of its category, such as a social network with 1.4 billion users, available open-source software is typically only the starting point for a quality solution. Often the software has to be customized to be leveraged. Contributing your customizations back to open source allows them to be vetted and improved for your benefit.
- Motivated workforce: Beyond a good wage and a supportive work environment, there is little that can push developers to do high-quality work more than peer approval, community recognition, and the opportunity for fame. Turning open-source software back to the community and allowing developers to bask in the recognition of their peers is a powerful motivator and an important tool for employee retention.
- Attracting top talent: A similar dynamic is in play in the hiring process as tech companies compete to build their engineering teams. The opportunity to be visible in a broader developer community (or to attain peer recognition and fame) is potentially more important than getting top wages for some. Not contributing open source back to the community narrows the talent pool for tech vendors in an increasingly unacceptable way.
- The efficiency of standardized practices: Using open-source solutions means using standardized solutions to problems. Such standardization of patterns of use or work enforces a normalized set of organizational practices that will improve the work of many engineers at other firms. Such standardization leads to more-optimized organizations, which feature faster developer on-ramping and less wasted time. In other words, open source brings standardized organizational practices, which help avoid unnecessary experimentation.
- Business acceleration: Even in situations where a technology vendor is focused on bringing to market a solution as a central business plan, open source is increasingly replacing proprietary IP for infrastructure and application platform technologies. Creating an innovative solution and releasing it to open source can facilitate broader adoption of the technology with minimal investment in sales, marketing or professional service teams. This dynamic can also be leveraged by larger vendors to experiment in new ventures, and to similarly create wide adoption with minimal cost.
- A moat in plain sight: Creating IP in open source allows the creators to hone their skills and learn usage patterns ahead of the competition. The game then becomes to preserve that lead. Open source may not provide the lock-in protection to the owner that proprietary IP does, but the constant innovation and evolution required in operating in open-source environments fosters fast innovation that has now become essential to business success. Additionally, the visibility of the source code can further enlarge the moat around its innovation, discouraging other businesses from reinventing the wheel.
- Cleaner software: Creating IP in open source also means that the engineers have to operate in full daylight, enabling them to avoid the traps of plagiarized software and generally stay clear of patents. Many proprietary software companies have difficulty turning their large codebases into open source because of necessary time-consuming IP scrubbing processes. Open-source IP-based businesses avoid this problem from the get-go.
- Strategic safety: Basing a new product on open-source software can go a long way to persuade customers who might otherwise be concerned about the vendor’s financial resources or strategic commitment to the technology. It used to be that IT organizations only bought important (but proprietary) software from large, established tech companies. Open source allows smaller players to provide viable solutions by using openness as a competitive weapon to defuse the strategic safety argument. Since the source is open, in theory (and often only in theory) IT organizations can skill up on and support it if and when a small vendor disappears or loses interest.
- Customer goodwill: Finally, open source allows a tech vendor to accrue a great deal of goodwill with its customers and partners. If you are a company like Facebook, constantly and controversially disrupting norms in social interaction and privacy, being able to return value to the larger community through open-source software can go a long way to making up for the negatives of your disruption.