Structured Dynamics, OSF for Drupal, Programming, OSF Web Services, OSF Widgets, Open Semantic Framework

Unnatural Open Source

I have never been an open source software advocate. In fact, like most people, I always wondered how companies could find a business advantage in developing open source softwares and how they could make money out of it to grow. It is nice to have open source softwares, but it is hard to imagine how you could justify putting thousands of hours in open source software projects if it is not only by passion.

In this post I will explain what I think is the main factor that put people, businesses and organizations on guard when come the time to think about open source softwares. In fact, I think it has much more to do with our nature: how we naturally are as human being, and much less to do with any real business related factors.

In a follow-up blog post, I will explain how Structured Dynamics embraced open source software, how we developed the company around the concept, and how we are managing the development of our project such that it benefits all our clients along with the company. But first, let’s try to figure out why much people are suspicious regarding open source softwares.

The Fear

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

– Dune, Frank Herbert

Have you ever heard someone telling you:

I found an incredible business idea! I am pretty sure that I am the first one to think about that. I will get some good money down the road!

Then, you naturally asked for more information about this great idea! And then the answer you got was something like:

Hooo! But I can’t tell you, this is really secret right now, at least until everything is ready to go.

Does this sound familiar? I does to me. I hear it often. But, why does people react that way? It is simply by fear: fearing that someone “steal” their ideas, start a company based on them, build projects or services that implemented them, and get rich while you are flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

To me, this is the main reason why people, organizations and businesses are suspicious regarding open source software: because of fear; fear of loosing something they don’t even have.

But the question is: is that rational? From my experience, and my understanding of how things works, I can certainly say that it is not. This way of thinking is not rational because it doesn’t take into account a few things:

  • The ability of others to do something with your ideas
  • The ability of others to have the vision you have for your ideas
  • The willingness of others to spend all their time and energy to make these ideas working
  • People tend to do what they want to do, and not what others wants­

The same behavior seems to happen with open source projects. When I am explaining to people what we are doing, one of the first reaction is: why your work is open and free? Don’t you fear that someone steal your project and ideas? How can you make money if it is free, people will just run with it for themselves no?

The simple answer to all these question is: no. No we don’t feature that anybody steal our projects and ideas just by cloning them from the source control. We don’t because of the four reasons listed above. We don’t because we trust our vision and our abilities to implement it in our various open source projects. And yes we can sustain the company pretty well with these projects and it is what I will cover in my following blog post.

Conclusion

Non-Open Source softwares are just like when someone has a business idea “for the next big thing” and that doesn’t want to share it with anybody else because he think that someone will take that idea and run with it by himself. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I learned with experience that there is only one person (or organization) that can make such a great idea a relative success: the person (or organization) that lives for that idea. An idea is just an idea, and has nothing great in it, until it gets implemented, until the idea lives by itself, propelled by it most dedicated advocate: its creators and their boundless enthusiasm. Any idea would fail without this… and would worth nothing; it would just be an idea.

Semantic Web, Open Semantic Framework

One of Semantic Web’s Core Added Value

If I ask the question: “What added value(s) does the Semantic Web brings on the table?”. So, what are the benefits that companies and organizations would get from using the Semantic Web? I am pretty sure that after asking this question, I would get answers such as:
  • You will instantly be able to traverse graphs of relationships
  • You will be able to infer facts (so create/persist new knowledge) from other existing facts
  • You will be able to check to make sure that your knowledge base is consistent and satisfiable
  • You will be able to modify your ontologies/vocabularies/schemas without impacting the description of your instance records or the usability of any software that use it (unlike relation databases)
  • And so on…

All these answers would be accurate. However, what if these answers would only be a part of the real added value that the Semantic Web brings on the table?

Note: when I refer to the “Semantic Web” on this blog post (and across all my writings), I refer to a set of technologies, techniques and concepts referred as the Semantic Web. So it is not a single thing, but a complete set of things that creates new ways of working with, and manipulating, information.

Strong of about 7 years of research and development of Semantic Web technologies that includes about 3 years of developing the Open Semantic Framework, that the biggest added value that I found from utilizing Semantic Web technologies is only partially related to these answers. In fact the biggest added value for me, as a developer can be resumed in one word:

PRODUCTIVITY

As simple as this. The biggest added value I gained from using and applying Semantic Web related technologies, techniques and concepts is an important increase in development, and data integration productivity.

Such productivity gain as to do with one of Semantic Web’s core attribute:

FLEXIBILITY

This is what I was suggesting in my latest blog post about Volkswagen’s use of the Open Semantic Framework: how Volkswagen uses the Open Semantic Framework to get flexibility that will lead to a gain in productivity to integrate, publish, and re-contextualize their data assets. The few gains that I listed above are part of the reason why the Semantic Web gives you flexibility that leads to an increase in productivity.

This same point as been re-affirmed today by Lee Feigenbaum in its latest blog post Saving Months, Not Milliseconds: Do More Faster with the Semantic Web:

Why is this? Ultimately, it’s because of the inherent flexibility of the Semantic Web data model (RDF). This flexibility has been described in many different ways. RDF relies on an adaptive, resilient schema (from Mike Bergman); it enables cooperation without coordination (from David Wood via Kendall Clark); it can be incrementally evolved; changes to one part of a system don’t require re-designs to the rest of the system. These are all dimensions of the same core flexibility of Semantic Web technologies, and it is this flexibility that lets you do things fast with the Semantic Web.

Warning: Productivity is not synonymous with simplicity

However, I would warn people that think that productivity gains are possible because semantic web technologies are simpler to use, manage and implement than other existing technologies.

It is certainly not the case, and I don’t think it will ever be. Semantic Web technologies, techniques and concepts are not easy to understand, and have a big learning curve. This is partly true because these techniques, technologies and concepts are relatively new in the field of the computer sciences, and because they are not fully understood, defined, implemented and used.