A sad day for Open Standards

First things first: I don’t care about Apache Harmony. It’s not part of my daily life, it doesn’t pay my bills, I never downloaded it, I’m not a member of the community and I don’t even have an Android phone. In fairness, I couldn’t care less if the project is abandoned. Even more, I will readily admit there is a positive side in IBM ditching Harmony and joining OpenJDK, as the world is now closer to enjoy a strong Java platform.

The problem is the price tag. With IBM surrendering to the Oracle bully, the Java Community Process is now as credible as Weekly World News, and basically nobody is safe. The spin pros have been busy focusing on a strengthened, renewed Java effort, and they conveniently (or should I say pragmatically?) forgot to mention how dangerous it is to be under the illusion that the JCP is a neutral and cooperative body producing Open Source friendly specs when the truth is Oracle can and do whatever they want, including breaching the JSPA and getting away with it. Or play puppet master even with mighty IBM. I wish all my FSF friends will soon recover from the initial excitement for a GPLed Java and realize how, really, the party is over and we have much less freedom than before. And maybe a better JVM with no competitors – but is it worth the price?

There is nothing worse than living an illusion: if you still believe Java is free just because there is a GPL JVM out there, a rude awakening lies ahead.

And the winner is… the Apache License!

Hell must be a jolly bone-chilling place today, as Matt Asay himself causes quite a stir on Twitter and the blogosphere by arguing that Apache [is] better than GPL for open-source business.

It’s good to see Matt, a long time GPL die-hard, considering switching sides. I can’t resist, however, noting how I happen to disagree. Or, actually, to just partially and conditionally agree.

I contend (and teach, and consult) that a license is only a tool and, as a former colleague of mine (and now Matt’s) likes to say, “a fool with a tool is still a fool”. As a tool, a license serves an ultimate purpose which might or might not be what the original creator designed it for. In the past few years, the so-called Commercial Open Source has butchered the GPL spirit, forgetting about how it was originally meant to set the software free forever and using it to ensure the biggest possible grasp and control over IP that Open Source could provide. As such, the GPL has become the ultimate stronghold against appropriation from third parties – something to make VCs happy, or a way to guarantee that the “vendor” was to remain in the driving seat.

Guess what? The GPL works fine, but with notable side effects that are ultimately business-unfriendly. Back to the tool metaphor, you can definitely turn a screw with a pocket knife, yet that would be suboptimal at best and dangerous at worst: using the GPL as a protection mechanism kinda works at the beginning, yet falls short in the long run. My few faithful readers already know where I’m getting to: there is little to no point in open source without a Community (note the capital C, which means a community of committed people who feel ownership and pride in a project), and you don’t build a community with a license that is actually used to disallow collaboration, as people know they are playing with a ball which isn’t theirs and could be taken away any minute (yes, there is the right to fork: point noted, yet mostly as irrelevant as vTiger and Unbreakable Linux).

The Apache License is definitely better yet it’s still just a tool: there is little point in giving your software away in the most liberal possible way if you are not ready to reap the rewards by building a successful ecosystem around it, which requires much more than a change of license. Moving to the Apache License (or anything in between – I happen to think that the EPL works almost just as fine) is a great first step towards greater adoption and an extended and sustainable ecosystem based on Open Development, but it requires some serious follow up in terms of community building. Take the license alone, and all you have is a different piece of legal gibberish.

Whenever customers confront me with the issue of choosing a license, I feel obligated to enter lawyer mode and start my answer with “it depends”. Neither the GPL, the EPL or the AL are jacks of all trades: what kind of screw do you want to turn?

Of Oracle, Sun and Open Development

Time for shivers in IT as the big news of Oracle buying Sun is more than likely to have someone worried. It’s too early to know whether Oracle will disembowel Sun and sell its mortal remains, butcher MySQL into Oracle CE (Children Edition, that is) or just see the light and do something truly innovative, yet I’m sure there are a few of those “good riddance Oracle, hello MySQL” corporate players who thought the Oracle sales man was gone for good, and who could really do without him reappearing fresh from a new tooth-sharpening session, and ready to chew IT budgets to shreds.

My sympathy goes to all of them who fell into (yet another) Commercial Open Source trap: the lesson is potentially hard indeed, but it could be argued it’s well deserved. Companies are bought and sold all the time, and it would have been nothing short of myopic to ignore that Sun (and henceforth MySQL) was ripe for acquisition, with Oracle being a potential buyer. All of a sudden, corporate eggs are likely to need the same old, worn-out and horrendously expensive data basket anyways, and that will not feel good to many out there. Yet, they could and should have seen it coming or at least account for it.

I’m sure someone will note that even in the worst case scenario of Oracle ditching MySQL, there is still the right to fork and all the Free Software mumbo-jumbo (MySQL will always remain free, anyone can innovate on top of it, yadda-yadda). The sad truth is that forking is an extreme measure, and extreme measures are, well, extremes and difficult to undertake. And let’s not forget how the GPL in this cases tends to turn into Saturn’s child-eating mode, as it makes extremely hard to gather a successful and diverse community: when there is no motivation to contribute except from freedom for freedom sake, there is no way to build a community that cares for something more than freedom itself. Also, I can hardly imagine anyone building a real commercial alternative to now-Oracle’s MySQL: with Larry Ellison owning and controlling the IP in such a strict way, why should anyone but long-tailish small shops take such a huge risk with very little reward? It’s likely that the answer is “no one”, unless some big guy wants to return Oracle the “Unbreakable Linux” favor – and fail at it, of course.

As I pointed out in the past (ironically, in a conversation with MySQL), diversity matters: if MySQL was a project governed by a neutral and diverse community, with a liberal license taking commercial interests into account, we might have seen a different story today. Maybe this is an opportunity for more open (and sustainable!) alternatives such as PostgreSQL to shine despite being constantly ignored by analysts and press? Maybe next time corporate buyers will take sustainability and open development into account instead than focusing on Open Source smoke and mirrors? Or, at a very least, understand that the Open Source vendor they are dealing with is on the market and likely to be ripe for an acquisition by God knows who, and plan accordingly? Maybe analysts will finally understand that the Open Core module is just a remix on stuff companies around established communities such as Apache have been doing for ages, but without the sustainable bit coming from healthy communities? Or will we just chug along, waiting for the next rude awakening?

Unfortunately, I’m afraid I know the answer.

Open Source and Agile – oil and water?

My $DEITY, BarCamps are fun! I spent a great Sunday in Oxford, together with a bunch of fellow Apache-ans and my new colleague: the venue exceeded my expectations by far, with loads of informative content, great fun and amazing views of Oxford during the post-lunch walkabout.

I took the liberty to set up a session to talk about Open Source and Agility, which was actually a lame excuse to drag Marco to the stage and see if we could make sense of what seems to be a conundrum where Agilists and Open Source developers share the same values of openness, transparency and technical merit, yet we don’t seem to be able to come up with a way of working together (as in running Open Source communities with Agile practices, or opening up Agile teams to Open Development processes).

I used to blame Agilists for that, as their strong position on classical unities seems to be one of the major blockers: as long as the team has to be co-located, there goes your clash with any Open Source development model. Co-location has also been a major pet peeve of yours truly, as I believe it’s a model that doesn’t scale and is not fit to today’s work environments who are clearly moving towards asynchronous and disperse teamwork. Thanks Marco for reminding me how I was just being the classical fool that looks at the finger pointing to the moon. In Marco’s words:

I see little value in mapping exercises (being it mapping XP or Scrum practices to CMMi or Open Development or whatnot). I see value in discussing commonalities and differences in values and principles and drive everything else from there.

Or, to put it differently, there is little point in arguing practices and processes, which should always be means to an end. He conceded that I’m actually in good company, though, as a large majority of Agile/XP die-hards have long since been sticking to practices for the sake of practices (“no pair, no party”, anyone?), ignoring the tenets of Shuhari, where practices are considered drills you should adopt and rehearse so that you can pick, choose and evolve on what works best for you. With this in mind, it might be a good time to see what are the commonalities in the “ends” and if there are incompatible differences.

Marco points out how the biggest problem might be the lack of a customer to satisfy in Open Source communities, something I could subscribe to but only if I’m allowed to note how there are usually many customers around a successful Open Source project, with every member of the community reporting to a different patron – herself included – with different needs and different priorities. The standard Open Development response to what could potentially be a serious stopgap in terms of different interests acting in the same project and pushing in different directions is clear, though: on one hand, do-ocracy and his French-speaking twin JFDI does the trick, and on the other keeping discussions and basing decisions solely on technical matters help tremendously as well. At the end of the day, this means that the customer is there – it just happens to coincide with the community as a whole.

Is that enough? Not sure, but I subscribe to what Ross Gardler writes on slide 26 of his thorough Agile and Open Development wrap-up. There just has to be a way to make Agile and Open Development sing in harmony: Agile has enormous potential to deliver, and Open Development can provide amazing peer review and long-term sustainability. Losing either would be just foolish: as long as there is room for middle-ground, openness and flexibility, I’m sure we can make it happen. More to come.

Software sustainability – the tour

A couple of weeks ago I was having an absolute blast in a small-yet-packed room at ApacheCon Europe, where I presented on software sustainability, a topic that’s very close to my heart. Slides are embedded below (and available here), even though chances are you won’t make a lot of sense of them (I hate bullet-point slideware with a passion). Don’t worry though, as I will have the very same talk modulo a few updates at the first edition of Better Software in Florence, May 6-7. See you there?

Covalent and SpringSource: here we go again

Gee… commenting Open Source acquisitions is turning into a full time job. I didn't have a chance to dump my thoughts when the SpringSource/Covalent merger hit the news as I was dashing through London like an headless chicken: a lot has been said already, which means I'll be the latecomer to the party and just add a few random notes for my memoirs.

First of all, let me extend my kudos to Mark Brewer and the Covalent crew: this is a very good opportunity to strengthen the Open Source support business model, and SpringSource looks like an excellent partner. I consider Covalent one of the best Open Source companies around, so it's really good to see them moving forward at a faster pace. It's no news I'm not exactly a fan of Rod Johnson's obsession for separation of IP creation and monetization (read: "no one outside of SpringSource is able to support the Spring framework", AKA "I want my cake, and eat it too"): I believe that there is more to Open Source than gating access to committership as a way to defend a business, but I guess that's just me and a bunch of others. As Covalent is bringing some great folks to SpringSource, there might be a good chance for them to bite Rod and friends with the Apache and Open Development bug, so we might end up with a closer bound between Apache and Spring, which is most definitely a Good Thing.

Having said that, I have to note I feel awkward when describing this deal as an acquisition: while the actual details of the transaction are private, we know about the 10M$ upper limit, that is what Rod Johnson milked from his round A from the deep pockets guys. The money changing hands has got to be much less: SpringSource got the funds last May, so it's safe to say most of it should be gone by now. On top of this, an undisclosed amount of shares went the Covalent shareholders' way. 

We have to remember Covalent was privately held, so all in all the deal is not that bad, despite landing at least couple of zeros behind what seems to be the standard nowadays. However, given the minimal amount of money and the potential role of shares, I can't stop wondering why SpringSource and Covalent decided to hit the press with an acquisition news, when the actual description of the deal looks so much more like a merger to me. Petty naming discussions aside, I believe that from a PR standpoint announcing the deal as a merger would have resulted in a much better perception of two leading companies in their respective spaces joining forces to hit the market as a bigger and better endeavor.

Marketing the transaction as an acquisition might strengthen the perception of SpringSource being tall and strong, but this comes at the price of somewhat diluting the value of Covalent which looks like the weak part of the deal, especially when you look at the numbers involved. As I have a passion for Mark and friends, there is a good chance I'm biased: most likely the Covalent folks are still recovering from hangover and are perfectly happy with the deal. Still, I believe the net effect of a  communication along the lines of a merger would have been easier to understand and a stronger proposition altogether. Nevermind this small gripe, I won't pass on any champagne left from the celebration, so here comes my virtual toast to SpringSource and Covalent for getting together and making Open Source a better place!

Zed Shaw and the Rails ghetto

If you have been living in a cave, or just taking a few days off as I did, you might have missed the rant from Zed Shaw, of Mongrel fame. Parental advisory applies: if you don’t like strong language, and if you don’t understand what rants are really about, you should probably steer clear from that page. But if you care about IT, Open Source communities and the issues around the crazy and stupid consulting world, Zed’s post is a must read. It’s a long read, but once you filter the swearwords and the bile out, the distilled information is definitely useful stuff.

I don’t subscribe to most of it, and I definitely think he went over the top even for a rant, but they guy surely has a few notable points and is clearly able to show how, in may ways, our industry sector sucks. More to follow.

Have conferences, will travel

It’s just been three days in the new year, and my travel agenda looks horribly packed already:

  • Next week I’ll be visiting the East Coast, going back and forth between Boston and Connecticut, possibly with a day in NYC as well. I’ll be landing on the 8th, leaving on the 12th: if anyone wants to join me for a beer or some nice food, just drop me a line and I’ll be happy to share a nice evening out!
  • I will barely have time for my usual trips to the Netherlands and the UK, then it will be time to pack again to attend the Open Source Think Tank in Napa, Feb 7th-9th. I’m really looking forward to this event, as it was one of my best trips last year, with tons to learn, loads of great people to meet and some great golf on top of it. 
  • My transatlantic journeys will be far from over, as in March I’m going to speak at OSBC. I’m really curious to attend what is clearly the best Open Source business event, and I’m sure Matt is going to provide us with something special. While I’m not expecting to stay much longer than what the event requires, I still anticipate to have some time to hang around the Bay Area, so again just shout and I’ll be happy to join you for drinks/food/fun.
  • I won’t even bother to unpack my luggage as I get back to Europe, given that I’m due to speak at ApacheCon Europe in early April. Amsterdam is no surprise for me, of course, but it will be nice to meet again with all the Apache folks. Hopefully I will be able to enjoy the full conference, including the Hackathon I sorely missed in Atlanta.

Whoa. Lots of travel ahead indeed. Yet, lots of exciting stuff going on. 2008 is going to be a key year for me and for Sourcesense: as I’m writing this, I’m seeing our draft plans for the upcoming quarters, and I can clearly notice a lot of amazing things to do, with great customers coming down the line. Bumpy ride as usual, but I’m looking forward to it! 


MarcF does it again…

I saw it coming. First Marc Fleury comments about Apachecon in his backyard, complaining about a missing invitation to attend, then Jim writes a somewhat resentful yet ironic entry, inviting Marc to follow the Apache Software Foundation business more closely, possibly putting some of his RedHat loot to good use by sponsoring Apache who, after all, has been the giant’s shoulder to stand on for a lot of JBoss business. It took just a few days and some Thanksgiving turkey for Marc to miss the afternoon football match and send another note to the blogosphere, poking more fun at Apache. The "fat ladies drinking tea" have now become a bunch of politicians hanging around as aging Star Trek fans, forgetting about code and preaching the Community gospel as if they owned the key to the Ultimate Open Source Truth.

One thing I’ll say for Marc: he’s damn good in rhetorics. A master of straw man, he depicts Apache as a group of oldies who only care about doing politics and duplicating stuff to indulge in their license talibanism. He’s not so good at fact-checking, though: a quick search at Ohloh would have shown how people like Geir Magnusson actually have bothered writing quite some code, other than helping freeing up the Java world within the JCP.  Which kinda shows how Apache really is about writing code: we just go beyond that and care about the big picture as well, and we’re lucky to have people like Geir around, who enjoy being a pain in the neck to whoever tries to circumvent our ability to build and openly develop software for the common good.

It’s no wonder Marc is getting it all wrong when it comes to Apache being duplicating code almost for the sake of it (or, better, for the sake of the BSD license). Something Matt seems to resonate with. Unfortunately, they are both missing the point: Apache has been duplicating efforts for the sake of community based development, and BSD-family licenses just happen to be an enabler for such an endeavor, as they encourage participation from a diverse number of interested parties. It’s not that GPL couldn’t work at all, but let’s look at the facts: GPL as it stands nowadays is far from being a collaboration platform. Commercial Open Source is using it as a big poster sign of software built behind locked doors, with incidental help from the community but no real incentive to participate. Understandably so, to some extent: the moment software becomes a core corporate asset, the latest thing you want is someone on a different payroll to decide what your roadmap should be like. Which, in turns, brings you to MarcF camp of a world split in two: producers and consumers, suppliers and customers. To be sustainable, this old world has to rely on well-established economics, where customers pay for technologies funded and built by vendors. If that doesn’t happen, vendors have the right to whine and mope about: Open Source here is little more than marketing sugar on a granny pie.

Too bad this is as far as it can possibly get from the way Apache sees the world, which is about building a collaborative environment where diverse interests converge into building tools and software for a number of different purposes, from fun to profit (and possibly both). It all starts from people willing to scratch a common itch, understanding how joining efforts, exchanging ideas and building code  together within a neutral environment allows to solve a technical problem faster and better. It enables different business purposes, as it doesn’t really matter if you want to build Open Source software for the sake of it, if you just want to use some stuff or if you want to run an international business around it. It mirrors the collaborative world we are living, where all lines are blurred and it’s difficult to say who is a customer, who is a vendor and even what on earth the product is. This is a world of shared R&D cost, which can leverage a number of innovative economics and doesn’t necessarily have to rely on licensesubscription sales to be sustainable.

So, is Apache duplicating code? Yes, indeed, sometimes even internally (just have a look at the number of feather-decorated web frameworks).  Is that bad? Hell, no: if we were to think about distribution terms not being a reason good enough to justify duplication, quite a bit of Open Source would have to go anyway as it’s mostly about superseding proprietary alternatives. Is it suboptimal? Maybe, but the trade off between unencumbered access to the development process and mere source code availability, with right to fork as the only alternative, makes me welcome duplication. Does it always work? No, it would require a thick pair of pink glasses to claim that Apache projects have always been immune to corporate pressure and hidden agendas, yet in the long run there is little a corporate behemoth can do when confronted by peer pressure under technical and meritocratic terms.

All in all, I think I’ll stick to my Klingon lessons: Q’Apla, MarcF!

Off to Atlanta

The suitcase is packed, the tickets are printed, the alarm clock is set to a frightening 3.45AM. In a few hours I’ll be off to ApacheCon US. It will be an interesting journey, as I will actually:

  • leave tomorrow, 6.40AM, to London Stansted;
  • hire a car, drive to Suffolk and have a business meeting on a golf course (my favourite kind!);
  • drive back to Stansted, drop my car and my golf clubs, hop on a coach bound to Luton;
  • spend a nice evening with Roberto, sleep in Luton and board my Silverjet flight to Newark next morning, then on to Atlanta, landing 7.45PM;
  • spend a couple of days at ApacheCon, talking about Open Development and Apache River;
  • leave Atlanta on Friday morning, fly to JFK, hop on a MaxJet flight back to Stansted;
  • have a business meeting (alas, no golf involved this time) on Saturday morning in London;
  • finally, land in Milano on Saturday evening.

Hope to meet a lot of great folks in Atlanta. Unfortunately, I won’t be staying much this time, but I’m looking forward to a nice couple of days hanging around with Apache peeps and having fun. See you there!