Open Source as an Enterprise Strategy

Thu 21 May 2009

After the dotcom crash, a new argument about open source arose: "What if the company you bought software from goes under? Open source gives you a viable route to find consultants, move development internally, and so on. You're not dependent on any one group's success." You can find this logic behind the Ubuntu Foundation pledge. The argument is slightly compelling, but I can't think of any examples where a company with paying customers simply liquidated.

However, another argument springs to the mind of many after a recent event: "What if the company you bought software from is itself purchased? What protections do you have from aggressive monopolists? With open source, you always have a viable route to avoid particular nasty players." Without a strong competitor available, you have a far worse bargaining position when it comes to things like support and additional features.

That recent event? Blackboard purchased yet another competitor. Blackboard is growing to represent everything IT people hate in the software industry. They applied their trademark to stop what I assume was typosquatting. They filed restraining orders against people who intended to present software vulnerabilities at a conference. Most egregiously, Blackboard was awarded a patent for online teaching websites ("learning systems"). I am not a patent lawyer, but I do know that dozens of places, including my alma mater, had been working on, and may have even deployed, similar systems at the time the patent was filed.

What's most striking about this is that Blackboard is a Linux based system. It's completely a LAMP stack. That heritage might be why Blackboard offered a small compromise days after the SFLC announced the USPTO was re-examining Blackboard's patents. The jist of the pledge is to not pursue patent claims against open source projects, unless those projects integrate with proprietary software. This gift isn't as generous as it seems; the number one question from many colleges looking for software is "Does this integrate with Banner?" Banner is basically the administrative lifeblood of these places. Enrollment, accounting, performance metrics, etc. It is of course, proprietary and the most boring kind of software no open source hacker would write to scratch a personal itch (I'm sorry Mark, but SchoolTool is far from where colleges need to be in the running).

So in the face of the announcement that Blackboard had bought up its largest competitor using their earnings from that quarter (!), a number of people are suggesting that open source is strategic to their enterprise:

"It's going to probably push some people off the fence on the whole open- source question," said Nicole Engelbert, lead analyst for education technology at the consulting firm Datamonitor, who believes that it is possible for Blackboard to improve as a result of its purchase of Angel. "Some people are going to say, 'That's it, I'm going to definitely invest in Moodle or Sakai.'"

Ubuntu ships Moodle (but not Sakai). We also ship restricted drivers. I wonder what Blackboard, Canonical, and the Ubuntu community think of that.

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