Sustainable software? Look down under!

A few months ago I was sipping a drink with friends, and I was asked what would I do should I ever leave Sourcesense. I answered that I would hope I’d make enough money by then but assuming it wasn’t the case, I would most likely start a new company or, failing that, I would contemplate moving to Sidney and send my CV to Atlassian.

There is more than surfing Australian waves in my admiration for that company: I’m watching with great amusement the debate on Open Source sustainability, how making money is tied to proprietary extensions, how Open Source is not a business model, and all the yadda-yadda that regularly pops in when someone dares to comment how, really, the Emperor is not wearing any clothes. Such commentaries are being filed in the “Firm grasp of the obvious” category, but they make for a fun read anyways: meanwhile, as the Commercial Open Source world is out there frantically looking for the Holy Grail of software sustainability in an open and collaborative ecosystem, it seems to me that a happy bunch of Aussies are filling it with Foster’s and passing it along.

While most Open Source companies try to make money by providing a free all-you-can-eat Sunday roast buffet, as long as you carve it yourself and bring your own gravvy, Atlassian is showing the beef by providing great food at reasonable prices, all the gravvy you want and a tab with no hidden charges, surprises or discretionary service fees attached. Not to mention a recipe book and access to the grill to cook to your own taste. Can you really argue with that?

I know, I know: it’s not Open Source, you need to pay to play and the ball is theirs. Yet their model is so upfront and clear that it feels like a breath of fresh air when compared to the amazing lot of commercial Open Source/crippleware in disguise out there:

  • pricing is clear and reasonable, mesured on real value instead than on what it takes to send a salesman to your premises to measure your spending ability, then provide you with a quote.
  • you pay for what actually drives value. Do you have 50 developers with software installed on their machines to build and test locally, plus a build and a staging server? No problem, here goes your unlimited free development license key to go along with the one you purchased for your production server.
  • do you want to tinker with the source code? You get all you need and then some to fix stuff yourself. And no, they won’t withdraw support just because you messed up with the code.
  • do you fancy ecosystems? Just browse the amazing number of plug-ins, add-ons and extensions that have been built by developers all around the world, or just ask for assistance in the user forums.
  • do you want to use their technology to support your Open Source effort? Here, get a free license and have fun. Oh, and by the way have a look at the notable number of contributions that Atlassian did to Open Source software and libraries they are using.

Can your Open Source vendor do this? I will need a few more fingers (and toes!) than I have access to if I wanted to count how many quote-Open Source-end-quote companies out there are doing their best to play the baitware game, providing astonishly little value for amazingly high prices and playing hardball with customers. While the Commercial Open Source world is talking about hybrid revenue models, here comes a pragmatic shop that just nails it. May I suggest analysts to pick up the phone and give Mike Cannon-Brookes a call?

What’s in a name?

Everyone and his dog his talking about Chrome. I’m probably not going to try it anytime soon: there is no Mac version for the time being, and Chromium is supported on spotted Macs only (yours truly is still striped and happy about it), but I can see exciting times ahead.

What I find pretty odd is how no one on my radar bothered to comment about how Chrome is a poor choice for a name, given how the same term has been used extensively for a key part of XUL, the UI toolkit behind Mozilla/Firefox. Chrome is so relevant to Mozilla that it even became a URL scheme, and I find hard to believe no one at Google was aware of potential name clashes.

I guess the humongous amount of money the Mozilla Foundation are getting through Google is going to make things easier, but I can’t see how that can be a good name that doesn’t piss Mozilla fans off. Does anyone remember how Firefox had to change name twice due to trademark issues and general brouhaha from the Firebird open source database community? History repeating itself, methinks, but it would be fun to see the Mozilla Foundation sending a Cease & Desist letter to Google, footing the bill with Google’s own money.

On an unrelated note, however, I’m just flabbergasted about big G’s marketing technique and tactics. I won’t believe even for a split second in the leaked email story, but I can definitely see how using comics was pure genius. I couldn’t say it any better than Bertrand:

Using graphics to explain stuff is obviously the best way, but the dynamics of the cartoon format (varying image sizes to emphasize importance, repetition of similar patterns and shapes to create a familiar universe in small steps) go much further than just combining images and descriptions. Not to mention the fun factor in reading it – everybody knows that people learn better when fun is involved.

I’m convinced – we need more of this to explain our often complex software systems.

Now excuse me while I go find a designer to write our next pitches as comic books…

Poor man’s mail merge in Apple Mail

Back at work after some "virtual" vacation (where virtual equals being at sea, yet nailed to a phone for most of the day… busy times over here), I have been confronted with what seemed to be a brain dead issue, that is sending a sizable number of emails to a lot of recipients. I'm not fond of Bcc: lists, so I thought there would have been an easy way to do some sort of mail merge in Apple Mail.

Unless I'm seriously missing something, that's not the case: there is no built-in functionality I could find, and all I manage to scavenge on the Net were dubious crippleware packages. There is a remote possibility using Automator, but it seems to depend from addressbook entries, while all I had was a text file with a list of email addresses.

I thought that would make for a good chance to finally have a look at AppleScript and, to my surprise, it was way easier than I thought. I'm sure there are much better ways of coding this (I particularly hate how I had to build the From: address by hand, yet apparently there is no easy way to grab that from the AppleScript dictionary), but if all you have is a text file with your e-mail in it and another file with a list of email addresses, you might find this script useful. Or not. It floats my boat, so I thought I'd share it.

Enjoy!(or just download it)

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tell application "Mail" to set allAccounts to name of every account
choose from list allAccounts with title "Choose the Mail account to use..."
set theAccount to result as string
 
set subjectDialog to display dialog ¬
	"Enter the subject of the email to send" default answer "no subject"
set theSubject to text returned of subjectDialog
 
set sendOrPreview to the button returned of ¬
	(display dialog ¬
		"Send the messages right away or preview and send manually?" with title ¬
		"Send or Preview?" with icon caution ¬
		buttons {"Preview", "Send"} ¬
		default button 1)
 
set theText to (choose file with prompt "Pick a text file containing the email text")
 
set theContent to read theText
 
tell application "Finder"
	set addresses to paragraphs of ¬
		(read (choose file with prompt "Pick a text file containing email addresses, one by line"))
end tell
 
tell application "Mail"
	activate
	set activeAccount to account theAccount
	repeat with i from 1 to (the length of addresses)
		set newMessage to make new outgoing message ¬
			with properties {account:activeAccount, subject:theSubject, content:theContent}
		tell newMessage
			set sender to ¬
				((full name of activeAccount & " < " & email addresses of activeAccount as string) & ">")
			make new to recipient at end of to recipients ¬
				with properties {address:(a reference to item i of addresses)}
			set visible to true
		end tell
		if sendOrPreview is equal to "Send" then
			send newMessage
		end if
	end repeat
end tell

The obligatory first post

Who am I not to oblige to write a quick post to test both my upgraded WordPress install and my brand new iPhone? This also works as an excuse to test the quite nifty WordPress iPhone app.
More later from a real keyboard, just bear with me while I turn a useless post into an hopelessly pointless waste of bandwith by adding a quick picture snapped with the phone camera outside the London house…

photo

Announcing Baby Pongo

In case you were wondering where I've been, well, let's say that life has been quite hectic and busy in the past few months. All of my free time has been occupied by the greatest project I have ever been involved with, and here is a sneak preview:

bp

Baby Pongo (that's our internal codename, AKA the first that came to mind a few weeks ago, and no, it's not going to stick) is now 13 weeks old, and seems to have fun kicking and swimming around. Things haven't been quite easy, as the first stage of pregnancy required my wife to stay home with a full rest policy: yours truly, as you can imagine, has been spending quite a bit of time back in Italy as of late, caring for my wife and the baby, while still going through a massive amount of great stuff at work which didn't fail to keep me busy and traveling around. 

As everything seems to get under control, I'm planning to slowly resurface, resume blogging, spend more time back in the UK and overall return to a normal life. If you didn't hear from me in the past few weeks, please accept my apologies and don't hesitate to kick my backside.

Meanwhile, you now will understand why I'm looking thrilled and overjoyed, enjoying as much as I can the next few months, and counting every minute from now to December 28th (talk about an interesting Christmas!).  

(Commercial) Open Source Armageddon

I'm so swamped these days that I barely have time to catch up with my work email, go figure what's happening to my blog feeds. There is however just too much bait out there to shut up, so I urge you to have a look at the whole stir about organic Open Source, vendor openness, the role of communities and, generally speaking, Open Source sustainability as a whole. 

You know where I stand: I'm an ardent community fan, and I contend that there is no viable Open Source model (let alone a business model) taking communities out of the equation. You know how I believe that Commercial Open Source as we know it is going to be down the drain in just a few years. You know how I believe that the vast majority of Open Source "vendors" are just proprietary companies in disguise, trying to piggyback on the all-things-open hype without a coherent – let alone compelling – market proposition.

It's good to see the Open Source think-tank is realizing the serious challenge ahead. Commercial Open Source Armageddon is approaching and, believe it or not, it's a Good Thing: VC market rules will kick in, new interesting initiatives will blossom, surviving Commercial Open Source players will turn and fold into hybrids models and we will still have fun with great Open Source software (and make money while at it) in an open world.

Can't wait.

The long tail treasure trove – slides available!

JavaOne is the usual blast: I'm trying to keep up with the meeting/session/party frenzy and I'm definitely disappointed in going home early (I will be back on a plane tomorrow afternoon). Our talk was, once again, very well received by an impressive and participative audience: while it's hard to pack 30-odd Open Source projects in 50 minutes, me and Brian had a great time bouncing Open Source libraries all over the place.

A number of attendees asked about slides: it took me some time to find a decent network connection (the hotel Wi-Fi wasn't all that cooperative yesterday evening and the JavaOne network … well, let's say everything else works here), but I finally managed to upload them both on Slideshare and on the Sourcesense site. Enjoy!

The Prius of Open Source

The new meme in the Open Source business blogosphere seems to revolve around an hybrid model pioneered by MySQL who (surprise!) is considering the addition of proprietary components for paid customers. Fabrizio agrees with the move, noting how a support model can only bring you this far as best customers turn into worst nightmares once they realize they have become competent enough to support their Open Source stuff. I agree on the conclusion (commercial Open Source, as we know it, won't be there in a few years' time, and a hybrid model will surface), yet I don't quite subscribe to the motivation.

Think of software as a car. People need cars. Some people actually like cars. A few are actually mad about cars. It's hard not to find value in wheels: at a very least, they bring you from A to B, but in most cases they appeal to your ego. A lot of people will save to buy a better ride and will anxiously anticipate the moment they'll get to experience that new car smell. Serious comparisons are drawn, comparative reviews are discussed on owners' forums, endless discussions arise between fans of different brands: it's a value-driven market where price matters, but it's just a row in the table, and the perceived value of a shiny iPod integration goes way beyond the price of a few cables and a plug.

The problem with commercial Open Source is that it doesn't sell cars. They sell insurance. And, guess what, people hate insurance. Every car owner needs to be covered, but I find pretty hard to imagine people doing lots of research on the fine print of insurance contracts. What really matters is price: the cheapest alternative that ticks that legal box is a great candidate for the winning spot. There is no value perceived in insurance: you need to have it, and that's it. There is no retention, either: the cheapest one wins no matter what, and people will happily jump the cliff and switch to a different supplier if that saves a buck or two.

Open Source needs to realize that the basic equation is free distribution vs. greater adoption. Adoption will bring participation, uptake, references, better software and all that. Adoption in itself, however, will provide just marginal business if the upsell proposition is based on insurance alone: there will be no drooling customers eagerly waiting at the register to buy support, as the insurance model is neither sexy and nor useful per se. The marginal value of priority updates, coverage against ambulance chasers and a throat to choke should stuff hit the fan is far from being a compelling proposition, and any baitware/crippleware tricks such as gated access to professional services for licensed customers alone are just sneaky ways to build an unstable and controversial relationship with customers who will be signing a contract, then start looking for alternatives such as aggregators, systems integrators or roll-your-own to provide them with a boot to kick the vendor backside with.

This is why most commercial Open Source as we know it, is doomed to fail. Unless vendors stop moaning about the conversion funnel and start rolling up their sleeves and provide value beyond insurance, a lot of VCs are going to be disappointed. Meanwhile, a lot of companies out there are making billions with Open Source already, as they use it to create, enter, and subvert markets, generating opportunities via community-based open development, and using Open Source as a component of a bigger picture. There is no need to look forward for the first Open Source billion dollar company: it's been there for a while already, and it's a hybrid.

Catch 22

Oh. My. Dear. God. I have just been pointed out to my blog, and how the latest entry is more than a month's old. So much for my proposition of not letting London suck of all my time. I have plenty of excuses (such as it's hasn't been just a London's fault, as both Amsterdam and Milano have their share of guilt), but then again I'm fully realizing how blogging can be a strange beast: the more interesting stuff out there, the more time it takes to stay on the ball, and the less time I have to blog about it.

I guess that has to do with my attitude towards blogging, as I try to take care of my posts, phrase them correctly and write some sensible stuff to start with. Not being a native English speaker clearly doesn't help, but I guess I should try and find some balance between a carefully written blog post, the occasional brain dump and the twitter-like quick stuff.

Maybe I should get back to the original idea behind blogs, and commit to dumping my activity log over here almost everyday: at a very least, that will fulfill my main expectation, that is getting back to these pages in five years from now and see what I've been up to, how many stupid mistakes I've been making and how would my life back then look from a distance. Worth giving it a shot, so you might expect a few more notes (and maybe some additional noise). And should I fall in the blog silence trap again, just keep on poking. :)

Notes to self

In no particular order:

  • relocating when you're in your late 20's is a different matter than doing the same when you're in your late 30's. Completely.
  • A long term rental in the UK is 6 to 12 months. A long term rental in Italy is 6 to 12 years. Keep that in mind next time you talk to an agent.
  • The creativity of Londoners in slicing and dicing terraced and period houses is amazing. No, I don't really fancy climbing a ladder to get to the kitchen, nor I'm a fan of a bathroom with the loo in the basement and the shower on the first floor.
  • Try to remember that $4 for a Tube ride is par for the city, don't gasp when confronted with the money drainage on your Oyster: it's like having a "newbie" sticker on your forefront (as I'm afraid it is using a top-up card, for that matter).
  • Either quit smoking or don't forget to pack a lot of cigars when flying back from Italy. Or be a billionaire so that you can actually afford tobacco. Not necessarily in this order.
  • Now that you have a proper house, good luck with understanding how utilities actually work.
  • While at it, don't even try to get started in opening a bank account, as climbing Mount Everest on a limp definitely looks like an easier endeavor.
  • Keep meeting amazing people, incredible customers and awesome partners. Get used to the London pace of doing business, which is like skateboarding on the roof of a Shinkansen.
  • Don't let London suck all of your time as of late. Resume tweeting/blogging, bring your golf bag over, shop for nice food and enjoy some quality time in the UK. When you're not traveling to San Francisco, Italy and Amsterdam in the next two weeks, that is.