Thoughts from the tank

Now that the jet lag has been somewhat mitigated by a lot of sleep, and the impressive pile of backlog has reduced to something more manageable, it’s time to write a recap from what’s been going on in Napa Valley at the Open Source Think Tank.

The whole experience has definitely been a blast and a revelation: sitting in the same room with 90 or so among the most prominent people in Open Source industry was both terribly exciting and extremely informative. Kudos go to the folks at Olliance for making this happen, and for their spotless organization. For a change, the program wasn’t about sessions (apart from a few presentations): we have been split in brainstorming groups, focusing on the prominent issues and promises of Open Source, trying to find answers and proposition to guide the commercial Open Source community in the years to come.

What I’m taking home is a bag of mixed feelings. For one Napa has been the ultimate proof, if ever needed, that Silicon Valley is the most powerful IT Old Boys’ Club ever, as being there makes very easy to understand how powerful local buzz and networking can be: the impression I’ve got is that there’s little need to bother about business plans and forecasts, when all you need is a bottle of Napa’s Chardonnay and your tennis buddy, which by the way happens to be a VC, to help your sipping on a sunny terrace while you talk him over investing a few millions in the next Open Source gizmo. OK, I’m taking this to the extreme, but if you are on the hunt for funding, do consider moving over there, as it can really make the difference.

This said, commercial Open Source is definitely thriving, as witnessed by the notable number of startups that were mingling at the event. As Fabrizio notes, it’s good to see that the hype is almost over, the playing field is level and the Open Source companies are now working on a peer level with traditional software vendors. The event has been an incredible confidence builder for me: the Napa audience (almost fully involved in the business of Open Source products), pretty much agreed in considering system integrators (I happen to know a pretty good one) as a core component of the value chain, bridging product companies to enterprise customers and building powerful agglomerates of technology from the vast choice of Open Source and Open Source related stuff out there. This is even more true for good ‘ole Europe, a market that US companies find quite hard to grasp, where system integrators have been traditionally playing the role of technology advisors and implementors. More good news for us, then: having our business plan validated and applauded by everyone in the crowd has been definitely good and highly motivating.

To be completely honest, though, I see some dark clouds over the horizon. Maybe it’s just me being over-cautious, but whenever I see such a massive amount of VC funding, I start to smell bubble. As much as statistics may be a powerful weapon of mass deception, we all know that the failure rate of VC-funded companies is very high. I’m wondering what will the scenario be in three years from now, when one company out of ten will be successful, four will have survived by selling out their assets and soul, and five will just have vanished.

What’s really sad is considering how very few will be attending their funeral service: despite sharing the same room with the big Open Source guys for nearly three days, there was little or no consideration for the community aspect of Open Source. And I mean none. Zilch. Nada. Of course communities have been mentioned here and there, but mostly as user gatherings, cheering crowds of enthusiastic fans eager to help fixing bugs and making suggestions. This is quite far from my notion of community as the diverse environment fostering innovation and providing sustainability to a software project. Call me narrow-minded, but I can’t quite see how “Commercial Open Source” can be considered sustainable at large when in a lot of cases we’re just talking about a bunch of coders behind a firewall, throwing some stuff to their users here and there and taking their products to the market mostly with a “bait and hook” approach (or worse). As much as the CIOs at the event told us how they don’t really care about Open Source in itself, as long as a solution solves their problem at the right price, I still contend there is much more to OSS in business then a cool distribution model with a somewhat enhanced role for the customer. We’ll get there, eventually, even if that would need some reality checks once a few of those companies start to vanish as the ruthless Darwinian laws start to kick in.

Oh well, enough ranting: time will tell, and of course I hope to be proven wrong. I’ll leave my fellow readers with one of the most shared visions from the gathering: everyone is expecting that in a few years from now Open Source and commercial software are going to meet somewhere in the middle, raising some sort of hybrid distribution and business model as software gets fully commoditized and SaaS takes the world by storm. I can clearly see some of that happening already, and it will be most interesting taking a look at the software market in 10 years from now. For the time being, I’m happy to keep on digesting the wealth of information I’ve got, eager to get the most from the impressive deck of business cards I managed to snatch, and impatient to find out whether having a similar event on a European level (as Matthew gently hinted) might be as fantastic as it looks on paper. And yes, Tuscany would be great!

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