OSBC, Day 1

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Well, that was a day well spent. As I just discussed with my old colleague Gordon Haff over a beer at the reception, today’s day at OSBC was a solid investment of my time. Like just about every conference I attend these days, the most interesting interchanges came on borrowed time in hallways with folks like Stephe Walli or Scott Dietzen, but I’m delighted to report that the sessions were almost universally high value. I say almost b/c having moderated one of them, I’m not in any position to judge its value – but I’ll get to that.

The conference kicked off with some introductory remarks from the man behind OSBC, Matt Asay, whom I often disagree with but have great respect for. Regarding his presentation, one has to hand it to him: any presenter that manages to work clips of both Starsky and Hutch (the knife throwing scene) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles (the highway scene) into his talk is doing something right. Beyond the style, however, there was certainly substance: as did several presenters, Matt discussed some of the common characteristics of successful open source projects in his experience. As an interesting side note – one of the interesting themes of the day was the sheer variety of answers I heard to that same question throughout the day – but more on that one later. Among the factors he discussed were modularity of code, maturity of market, and size of market opportunity (this was a popular one). All in all, a very credible kickoff.

Next up was Sun’s Hal Stern, whom I had the pleasure of having breakfast with prior to his keynote. In terms of the sheer pop culture references, Hal put Matt to shame by describing open source in terms of 70’s Art Rock, hockey sticks, an Alexander Mogilny jersey, Manhattan skiing and the Creative Commons. And here I was thinking I was special for working an AK-47 into my last deck – I’ve got a ways to go. Apart from the anecdotes, though, there were two key take aways from this session:

  1. Perpetual Beta: as popularized by Google, this is the notion that software is a process rather than an end state. But the key insight here was that the customer appetite for this dynamic evolution – which Adam Bosworth might term intelligent reaction – is likely to be proportional to the business importance of that application. In other words, Google News can afford to experiment in ways that Google Search probably cannot. I’d never thought about it in quite those terms, but it’s a good point.
  2. Rethinking Constraints: this was the most important idea for me, because it fits perfectly with some of the thinking I’ve been doing in terms of rationalism vs faith in the context of software. Boiled down, this was essentially about thinking out of the box, and not accepting artifical constrains. What if, the question was posed, the price of software went to or approached zero? What if an entire product line was rendered vulnerable to a particular line of attack? The questions might seem mundane, but the point IMO is not. Too often we let ourselves be bound and blinded by our assumptions. Open source has the potential to reset a great many dials within the world of software, so these artificial constraints can be far more damaging than we realize.

Following Hal’s talk came a couple of quick demos – nearly all of which I managed to miss – along with a talk from Intel’s Dirk Hohndel – all of which I managed to miss. Catching up my partner on the last couple of week’s of activity following his paternity leave seemed sort of important – go figure.

Following lunch, I caught John Roberts’ (SugarCRM CEO) talk which touched a great many bases within open source: the economics, the development model, the differentiation with traditional (and untraditional) CRM vendors, etc. Fascinating look at the experiences and philosophy of a firm that more or less rejects the traditional approach to designing software, on engineering as well as sales/marketing levels. Couple of quick take aways:

  • Modularity was again stressed as an important design consideration
  • Open source is not just about commoditizing a market, it’s about expanding it
  • Dichotomy between commercial (sugarcrm.com) and open source (sugarforge.org), is rigidly and severely maintained
  • My favorite line? “If you like our software, you’ll call us”
  • Not high on support/service as a revenue opportunity

From Roberts’ session I hopped right over to my panel, where I was joined by the following lineup:

  • Scott Dietzen, President & CTO, Zimbra
  • Julie Hanna Farris, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Scalix Corporation
  • Fabrizio Capobianco, Founder & CEO, Funambol
  • Craig Burlingame, CIO, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Trial Courts

While we had maybe a half full room (was tough to compete against this session) we did have a pretty solid discussion, in my admittedly biased opinion. The general impression I walked away with, imparted by both the vendor participants and the Commonwealth’s Burlingame, is that as I have contended there’s a lot of opportunity to innovate in this space. One interesting comment from the crowd came from one of the later panelists, Barry Strasnick (CIO, CitiStreet). His pushback to discussion of things like iCal for sports teams was that as an enterprise CIO, he didn’t care about the user experience – he cared about costs, migration, etc. While I could see the point, I do believe that we’re not simply talking about eye candy here: we’re talking about the potential for real improvements in user productivity. As Dietzen said, if your power user spends between and hour and four hours in email every day, and you can improve his productivity by 20% – what’s that worth to you? Even more interesting were some of the tidbits from Craig: he is absolutely interested in unified messaging/VOIP, he is a believer in the work that Peter Quinn is doing around ODF, and he’d very much like to have some sort of document type normalization layer so that users didn’t not get hung up with files they didn’t have applications for. All in all, I had a lot of fun with this one.

The last session of the day might have easily been the best, however. Matt had assembled a high profile series of enterprise CIO’s to discuss their thoughts and impressions of open source. First, a list of the panelists:

  • Gary J. Beach (Editor, CIO Magazine)
  • Ameet Patel (Former CTO, LabMorgan (JP Morgan Chase))
  • Don Haile (President & CIO, Fidelity Investments)
  • Ron Rose (CIO, Priceline.com)
  • Jamie Cash (CIO, NLG)
  • Barry Strasnick (CIO, CitiStreet)

Among the interesting points made during this session:

  • They do care about code – see Matt’s post here
  • Areas they were reluctant to trust to open source: mission critical databases and vertical software segments (i.e. accounting or Sarbanes Oxley software)
  • Most commonly cited open source products: Apache, Eclipse
  • One breakdown on where Linux is used: 8 CPUs or under
  • Vendor spending was typically in the billions, and cost was not a driving factor in their investments

Also interesting to yours truly was a question on the value of analysts. The question was posed to the assembled CIOs about how much influence external parties such as folks like Forrester, Gartner or IDC had on open source investments and the answer came back quickly: very little. The general impression of most of the panelists seemed to be that analysts a.) don’t cover the open source technologies in enough depth, b.) have significant conflicts of interest given their financial relationships with commercial vendors, and c.) reporting is often considered suspect b/c of b. Couldn’t agree more, and one would suspect that The Hartford’s James McGovern would as well.

So that’s a quick summary of today. I’d like to thank Hal for the mention of my blog during his talk, though someone behind me was muttering “who the hell is Steve O’Grady?” 😉 – and to another very reputable technologist who referred to RedMonk as one of if not his favorite analyst firm. Maybe we won’t be tarred with that bad analyst brush yet 😉