Open Source, End Users, and Product Management

One of the most interesting aspects of free/open source software is its relationship with end users, which for the purpose of this post I’ll define as users who are not also developers. Paul Young of Product Beautiful presents an thought-provoking case.

Open source developers have created products so good, that they are nearly indistinguishable to an end user from commercial software. This has changed the mindset and expectations of users to think that they are the persona that the developer is writing code for, but are they? Some applications, such as Firefox, have made the leap and are clearly developing for an end user. For an example of a FOSS project that hasn’t, look no further than Pidgin… a free and open source instant messaging (IM) client… Obviously, there is a huge gap between the expectations of the users and the developers. Who normally bridges that gap? Product Management.

As a once (and future?) product manager, I found Paul’s post particularly interesting. The comments are also good, including the ones that pointed out that Vista has a product management and a gap separating it from its users.

Perhaps there could be some sort of certification of free/open source projects. Some could wear the badge: our users are our customers (e.g., Firefox). Others could wear: our users are us, the developers, and others with the same tastes (e.g., Pidgin?).

I saw Paul’s post via Matt Asay’s Open Road blog. I find it strange that a blog about openness has a partial feed, rather than a full feed, and requires registration for comments. In other words, it’s more like Pidgin than Firefox. And so, with some sadness, I’ll unsubscribe from it.

GPL: Flavors and Numbers

Palamida maintains a watch on GPLv3 adoption. Over 2000 projects are now using v3. After reading the current PalaPost, I had the following questions.

  • Who are these Palamida people?
  • Why are they using Blogger, rather than free/open source software, for their blog about use of the most prominent free software license?
  • What about AGPL adoption? (Pala’s post mentions AGPL, but doesn’t provide numbers.)

Matt Asay, via whom I saw this, shares my interest in the last of these questions. In researching the first two I tried to get to, only to encounter a Drupal mascot and an “unable to connect to database” error. I guess Palamida is trying to use free software…

Free Tags While Awaiting Semantic Web

MiracleTo start, we need to describe the semantic web. Definition: an evolving extension of the World Wide Web in which the meaning of information and services on the web is defined. When confronted with that, my brain flees to the comforting world of comics and to comfort from Sidney Harris. Thus calmed, it might be able to cope with video of someone far more semantically sage than I am: so I append a video of Tim Berner-Lee to this post.

For a concrete example, consider the word free. The languages and tools of Web 2.0 (or whatever number we’re up to now) are blind to the distinction between ‘zero price’ (gratis) and ‘freedom’ (libre). So the web itself cannot resolve the ambiguity.

The semantic web is the miracle that occurs between using the word free and having the web understand it. It’s the miraculous (to me) thing in some future cloud that enables me to write, without laborious distinction-drawing, one post about WordPress being free because it costs me no money to blog using it, and another about WordPress being free because I have the right to read, modify and distribute the source code.

One of the things I can do while waiting for the semantic web is to tag my posts. For example, when I’m writing about WordPress as free software (free as in freedom, free as in libre, etc.) I can use the tag opensource. Yes, I am aware of the argument that “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software. But opensource is effective because people looking for blog posts or other web content on free software may well, however grudgingly, search for the term/tag.

When it comes to the other sense of free (as in beer, as in gratis), I wish there was a tag likely to be as effective. I would welcome suggestions for a tag to indicate that I’m posting about free in this sense. And no, I’m not offering a cash prize for the best suggestion.

Now, to top off the tasty multimedia semantic sandwich, here’s Sir Tim.

OStatic: GigaOm on Open Source

Yesterday, Om Malik announced Ostatic, the newest member of the GigaOm family of blogs. Here’s how editor Sam Dean introduced the site: “OStatic’s mission is to be the most comprehensive web destination for information and insight on open source software and services.”

Mike Arrington asked, is Ostatic built on open source? The answer is yes: it’s built on the Drupal platform. I think that it’s the first of the GigaOm properties not to be built on WordPress.

I can see two reasons to use Drupal, rather than WordPress, for OStatic. First, the site, including much of the content, was developed by Vox Holdings, rather than by GigaOm, so the GigaOm preference for WordPress wasn’t as strong a factor as it might have been.

Second, Ostatic differs from existing GigaOm sites in that it’s more than a blog. It includes a database of open-source projects. Hence Drupal, a content management system (CMS), may well have been considered a better fit than WordPress, which is more of a blogging system with some CMS-like features.

I certainly don’t think that Om’s choice of Drupal for OStatic reflects any lack of confidence in WordPress, or any lack of open-source-ness on the part of WordPress. WordPress (like Drupal) is under the GPL.

I wish all the best to Om and to OStatic, even as I disagree with his description of it as a blog – it’s more than that, in so represents a bigger step for GigaOm than might at first appear.

Top 5 Microsoft Internal Emails

There have been some great Microsoft-internal-then-leaked emails over the years. Todd Bishop, who blogs about Microsoft for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, picked his top 5 yesterday. Recent Vista-related emails show that Microsoft still has it.

But for me, you can’t beat the class Halloween documents. Here’s where the author asserts that OSS (Open Source Software) may be proof against the (FUD) (fear, uncertainly, and doubt) tactics for which Microsoft is well known.

Loosely applied to the vernacular of the software industry, a product/process is long-term credible if FUD tactics can not be used to combat it… OSS systems are considered credible because the source code is available from potentially millions of places and individuals.

The likelihood that Apache will cease to exist is orders of magnitudes lower than the likelihood that WordPerfect, for example, will disappear.

A tip of the hat to Matt Assay for the link, and for a typically even-handed assessment.

They illustrate that Microsoft has long been one of the most forward-thinking and self-aware companies in the business…but also one of the most threatened (and threatening).

Microsoft was first to spot the open-source threat. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t also recognize the open-source opportunity.

Utility of Data and Openness of Code

Consider the following interesting assertion.

Data has this really weird quality. In economic terms data has an increasing marginal utility… Each incremental point of data adds value to the ones you all ready have.

Those are the words of Brad Burnham. I saw Brad’s post linked to by Fred Wilson, Brad’s partner at Union Square ventures. Brad’s post is mainly about Google; his perspective is that of a VC who would like to see Google’s dominance disrupted, preferably by USV-backed firms.

Matt Asay picked up on Brad’s point about marginal utility of data (MUD?), and tied it to his own thinking about abundance and free/open source software. Thinking about Google, MUD, open source, and abundance didn’t make me think that Google’s dominance is due to end any time soon.

Google takes some of the abundance of open source software and uses it to power web services that are mostly free to the user. These services benefit from, and add to, Google’s private abundance of data. Google cannot realistically be called upon to open up this abundance, since it is data from and about users. The implicit contract between Google and the user is: we’ll give you free web services, you give us your data, and we won’t do anything evil with it or to you.

So Google’s private abundance of data is part of its positive feedback loop. At first glance, that doesn’t bode well for Brad’s wish for his firms, or for Matt’s wishes for open stuff. But I do wish each of them well in 2008.

What DiSo Means to Me

Many feed readers (mine included) just caught DiSo. That’s not as unhealthy as it might sound. The term refers to distributed social networking. Maybe it might have been called DiSoNe, but that would be a silly name.

DiSo is a free/open source software project. The software will implement web standards such as OpenID and OAuth. 2007 was a big year in terms of the definition of these standards. It seems to me that one of the more immediate goals of DiSo is to make 2008 as big a year in terms of implementation.

The DiSo model “can be described as having three sides… Information, Identity, and Interaction.” I think that the first and last of these sides correspond to Content and Connection. I admit that’s rather like saying that I made myself a hammer a while ago, and now everything looks like a nail. Perhaps I need a term for Identify beginning with C: character? How good a term is that? It depends on how closely web identities resemble fictional characters.

Does all this stuff about standards and models sound rather abstract? I’d say yes, and that if the abstraction is a problem, then the DiSo project is an attempt at a solution. It’ll produce code that people can use. To get gradually more specific:

Well, that’s what I’ve found out or deduced about DiSo so far. I hope that the above is helpful to others. I had to do some digging and head-scratching before arriving at this understanding. I found Anne’s post at GigaOm to be too WordPress-centric (yes, I believe that it’s possible to be too WordPress-centric).

I tend to sync better with Chris Messina’s ideas than with his writing. For example, I don’t find the term The inside-out social network very helpful. And, after reading the last paragraph of his post with that name, I feel rather tired, vaguely inspired, but none the wiser.

Of course, the rather tired thing may be because it’s 3am here. If, due to that or any other cause, there are mistakes in the above, I hope that someone more knowledgeable and/or awake will correct them.