Why do corporations contribute to open source? What drives open standards? Both of these questions have spawned hours and hours of debate from academia to the blogosphere to the board room. As is obvious to most rational individuals (there are exceptions, as always), the answers are both complex and nuanced, rendering simple answers impossible. Yet I think the key to understanding both is to understand openness as a function of incentive.
For example, let’s take last week’s Office Open XML Formats announcement. As I discussed, I can understand Microsoft’s decision to pursue its own course even if it’s not what I think is in their best interests (and certainly isn’t in their customers). Others, like IBM’s Bob Sutor and Sun’s Simon Phipps were less sanguine. Bob opened his take with the following:
To me, that document formats for “office” applications should be completely open, not hindered by patents, and not owned by a single vendor is just obvious. [emphasis Bob’s]
Simon was similarly adamant:
An open standard is one which, when it changes, no-one is surprised by the changes. Admittedly I’m not surprised when Microsoft repeatedly and apparently arbitrarily changes its interfaces and formats and jerks developers around but I meant “not surprised” in the sense that the change process was open to involvement and contribution by all, not in that way.
For what it’s worth, I agree with both of them. It is obvious that a format should be open and owned by no single vendor. At least, it’s obvious to me, Bob, Simon, lots of folks external to Microsoft and likely the EU. I doubt very much however if it’s all that obvious to Microsoft, and the problem is one of incentive. Scoble tacitly admits this in the video below when he says that this is a whole new Microsoft (though I don’t buy that either; not when the only products mentioned in the interview are Microsoft ones and the Open Document Format isn’t discussed).
As Jonathan Schwartz often says – and I’ve agreed here any number of times – open standards favor the laggards. For all its promise, the Open Document Format is clearly playing that role at the moment, as Microsoft’s Office formats are far and away the dominant players on the planet. Because of this, their incentive to participate in anything that jeopardizes that position is low. While Brian Jones may claim (WMV video link) that the folks from Redmond “were never trying to keep the binary formats locked down, it was just that they were not designed to be easily accessible by other people,” I’m not buying that. There’s some truth there, sure, but could Microsoft have been more open? Absolutely. Why haven’t they? No incentive.
The simple fact is that like any massive, publically held business Microsoft is going to do what’s best for Microsoft; sometimes that will benefit customers, sometimes it won’t. While the benefits of open standards generally and the Open Document Format specifically may be obvious externally, they’re simply not to a division that’s generated absurd margins for several decades.
This simple product decision is hardly the only decision attributable to incentive. Whether it’s Novell buying SuSE and Ximian, IBM investing a billion dollars in Linux, Sun open sourcing Solaris, or MySQL/Sleeypcat/db4objects pursuing an open source centric model, it all comes back to incentive. The incentive might be competitive threats, ammortized development costs, or the opportunity to build marketshare, but they’re all about incentive. Obvious, yes, I know. Yet worth repeating. On a corporate level, decisions around openness often (though not always) come down to a simple cost/benefit equation, much to the chagrin of more altruistic community contributors everywhere. In a perfect world firms would put customer’s needs and wants before their own; wake me up when we get there.
Whatever the open project or standard, I think it’s important to understand the motivations of both potential participants as well as competitors. The shortest distance to achieving victory for openness is via incentive. You want to encourage openness and participation? Find the right carrot, or, if need be, the right stick. Incentive can be manufactured.