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You Are Free!… Really?

April 13th 2010

Open Source

Open source is a technological reality that continues to gain in popularity. It is interesting to note, on the other hand, that the concept was present from the early 1960s.

Obviously, the lack of a structure for communication and exchange limited the expansion and growth of the concept on a planetary scale as we know it today.

The subject of open source is fascinating to recall the great relativity of things, especially in technology, when analyzing technological phenomena over a horizon of more than 5 years.

We note then that technological novelties appearing today as revolutionary in terms of perception seem instead to follow in the wake of the old and famous law of Lavoisier: "Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed".

I take advantage of the phenomenon of open source, a pretext, to raise the frequent absence of a sharp critical sense in differentiating technological innovations in terms of their impact and the actual operational gains that they can generate for a company.

I offer you two visions of technological innovation:

1. The Fundamental Novelty:

It results from a new idea that profoundly changes the paradigms of thinking and the existing ways of doing a business. In other words, it's the novelty likely to modify the process itself.

Example: The democratization of the Web for the masses in the 1990s. Communication and information sharing would never be the same again, thus generating profound changes in human social behaviour.

2. The Induced Novelty:

It results from a pre-existing possibility, which was only waiting to be actualized to create new leverage in a company. In other words, the novelty that improves the existing process.

Example: The possibility of manufacturing more of the same product in an equivalent period thanks to the reduction in assembly time generated by the presence of a new, more efficient electronic component.

From a productivity standpoint, these two types of novelty can be equally valuable. However, they differ significantly in their respective operational impacts.

Changing the foundations of a process instead of optimizing it does not call for the same investments of time and money. The gesture with usually higher associated costs, such as the culture and management philosophy of the company, can be further undermined.

What about the open source in all of this?

It must be understood that open source is first and foremost the offspring of the possibility offered by the Web to create virtual communities of developers now connected and dedicated 24 hours a day to the advancement of a common goal. A collective brain with overdriven neurons, in constant turmoil and action. Wow!

Seriously, I reread my last sentence, and I wonder how not to be impressed by such a phenomenon that calls for a single qualifier: "Revolution".

Well, of course, we have to nuance this statement a bit!

Regarding my vision of things, the phenomenon of free code is a novelty of the "induced" type because it is not so much the methodology of development (it must be understood here that it is not the programming language or the method as a "SCRUM" approach) which has mainly fueled the phenomenon, but rather the possibility of management and rapid and efficient sharing of the central object: the source code.

However, the source code, free or not, is an animal with its own behavioral peculiarities. The process of developing an IT application has its own management challenges, regardless of the platform and the technological approach chosen.

Therefore, praising open source code as a panacea to avoid the usual business application development problems seems to me to be a dangerous automatism. In fact, it is almost always the development process that is the primary determinant of the quality of the final rendering and not the technology as such.

Obviously, open source has marked advantages, among others, that of offering a multitude of existing, robust and quality applications, which can represent the final solution to fill a simple need or, even, be an excellent starting point for a more elaborate personalized management solution.

However, as statistics on the costs of deploying a management solution confirm that the initial costs are negligible in the medium term for a client, we can deduce that acquiring a proprietary code is not really the critical component in the final and global cost picture.

In other words, developing a custom application in open source, initially free, will not necessarily cost you less over time. Indeed, it is the costs of professional services that will quickly gain the upper hand. A phenomenon supporting the trend is that mass software becomes more of a commodity as an object of purchase. Its price tends to decrease steadily, reaching the threshold of free eventually.

However, the purpose of my post is not to start a philosophical debate on the issue of free and sole proprietorship. Arguments might rain on either side to justify using one or the other... today! As with everything else, hybrid approaches are gradually taking hold, erasing the distance by merging schools of thought.

The buzzwords may follow one another at breakneck speed. The important thing is not whether a technological approach wins or loses in absolute terms... Obviously, the winner must always be the client.

What concerns me here is the phenomenon of technological novelty seen as a remedy to problems over which it ultimately has no control.

The development of a computerized management application, free or proprietary code, is governed by general principles intrinsic to the process and whose development cost is one of the challenges without being the only one; the speed of development versus the quality of the deliverable, the optimization of the strategic development of the product (PRM) according to the anticipation of the evolving and specific needs of the client, the capacity of strategic adaptation of the tool to the critical processes, etc.

The initial gratuity of free software does not protect you against the nightmare of any IT manager, namely the application at the end of its rope which no longer meets current and future needs, therefore an application to be replaced after a massive internal investment in training of your staff and professional fees for customization and software integration.

In this unfortunate situation, it is also not the access to the source code that puts a smile on your face because unless you are a software development firm yourself, your company's strategic priorities are probably elsewhere.

Your best "sustainability - happiness" assurance remains a guarantee of access to your data. Your management information is what needs to be protected.

The nightmare mentioned above is quite possible with a proprietary source code application, you will say. Absolutely!

This only reinforces my position that "technological novelty" is not always equivalent to a "magic bullet".

As a manager, you are free to choose! But free software does not automatically free you from the common potential pitfalls of developing computerized management applications.

Therefore, remain vigilant in evaluating and selecting any technological platform dedicated to a strategic project in your company.

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