Welcome to 1998

Carl Grant writes:

"For OSS to go beyond being an academic practice; beyond being an activity practiced in basements in people’s spare time; and finally beyond being just the sexy word that it is at the moment, then it’s really important that we work out ways to make OSS (and for that matter, open standards, which is really a variation on the theme) coexist with, and indeed support commercial activities. Ultimately that is how things will get done and how usable products will result."

I don't know a thing about running for-profit businesses, which is why I don't do it. But if I were to start a new company with the aim of commercializing FLOSS toolkits -- nothing wrong with that, if you're an honest broker and give back in proportion to what you take in, especially in a small community like ours -- I wouldn't want to start off new my big product offerings by offending the FLOSS developers whose awesome toolkits I'm commercializing.

If he really thinks that OSS is some sort of "sexy word at the moment" or solely an academic or basement practice, he's delusional. (Contrasting that with his writing in an OSS blog toolkit published using a FLOSS web server, which would seem to be rational choices, and not delusional at all.) As far as I can tell, the only reason the business he's in right now is possible at all is that FLOSS *already* supports commercial activities. I'd bet more of his customers already know that than he realizes, or maybe he'd dial his rhetoric forward to the library software present, which is probably more like 2003 than the 1998-era FUD he's paging from the stacks here.

Oh - and I, for one, sure hope FLOSS remains an academic, basement, and spare time practice forever, because the last time I checked (two minutes ago) these things are not in opposition to commercial endeavors, either.

If you think I'm being harsh, then I'll just remind you that language *matters*, and if it didn't, you wouldn't get Richard abusing the phrase "open access", either. Open source, open access, and open standards are completely different activities undertaken by completely different combinations of people in completely different circumstances. To conflate them all because of the common word "open" is shortsighted enough - to misapply the terms against the intent of the proponents of each of these separate categories of endeavors is to sow distrust.

And to speak this directly is to sow dislike, I know. Markets are conversations, though, right? I'll be your conversationally cranky old-school FLOSS hardliner any day.


You noticed my ironic use of

You noticed my ironic use of the work 'open' - perhaps I should have put quotes around the open word in the title of my post, to emphasise that.

I agree the multiplicity of uses for this little word is dangerous, leading to disingenuous use and false assumptions. Sol Lederman's post, picking up on the OpenTranslators name, assumed that things were more open than they actually turned out to be.

Carl's reply, which you quote from, I believe highlights exactly how the 'open' word can have narrow and specific meaning which not necessarily matches the broader assumptions of the reader.

Turns of phrase

I probably need to assume some of the responsibility for the language, since I co-authored the release, and I believe the provocative turns of phrase you refer to may be mine.

I've been running a business for the past 14 years based on open source software, open standards, and open systems being combined in various ways to do interesting stuff. In the process, I've been laughed at, received no end of blank stares, even been accused of subverting the western economy. I have also enjoyed stimulating, exciting partnerships with commercial companies in all corners of the information industry, as well as with public and academic libraries and consortia. And my company has released hundreds of thousands of lines of code over the years, and continues to do so today. In fact, we write very little code that isn't released early, released often.

With that background, I am also perfectly confident in saying that we are all still on a learning curve when it comes to figuring out the place of OSS (and, regrettably, even open standards) in the marketplace as a whole, and in commercial endeavors in particular, and we're nowhere near the top of the curve. My own perspective on it has changed year by year, as the broader community realizes the implications of what we can do together. I see OpenTranslators as a powerful enabler for OSS-based user interface projects as well as metasearch applications, and it strikes one of my absolute favorite chords: The intrinsic synergy between the different kinds of 'open' that we're talking about here. Yes, open standards and open source software are certainly and obviously very different things, but they are also two sides of the same coin, they supplement and enable eachother. They represent a fundamental principle of human endeavor: That some things work better when they are shared. And from my particular perspective, OpenTranslators represents a piece of the puzzle of how we move forward on some concrete technical issues, as well as some issues of relationships between different commercial players as well as people building their own systems. We are still writing the book on this stuff.

The thing is, here, that

The thing is, here, that everywhere I've ever worked, dating back more than 10 years now, my colleagues and I have used your company's software. I can't speak to the state of the business end of what you do, but I think the particular phrases I quoted reframe the story as one where what you've done so far hasn't added up to much, and to my ear, that's nonsense.

I'd be much more excited to read from you how your apps and libraries power a huge variety of working library services, and how with your new partnerships, you can reach even more - or something like that, something more positive that demonstrates how where you've been created a solid platform from which to do much more. The alternative (the quote) just makes it all small, and it off-handedly sweeps everything people like me have done under the rug, too, and I will never be satisfied with that, because, simply put, all of us combined and all of our FLOSS tools have already had a huge impact, plain and simple.

I wish you luck with all of these endeavors, and I look forward to reading that book when it's written. :)

Hi Dan, And thanks for the

Hi Dan,

And thanks for the kind words. I've been completely delighed with the power of OSS to enable change, to support standardization and collaboration, and to build new relationships. And I'd certainly be the last one to ever belittle what has been achieved by all the folks using our tools.

But in deciding to run this on a commercial basis, to show up at ALA and try to bang the drum for OSS and standards, I've also been squarely in the middle of the sometimes desperate, often greatly amusing counter-reaction from some of the old, established players... tired old lines like, "OSS is only for libraries with a big IT/staff or a bunch of young hacker-librarians", or, "you can't get support for OSS." The funniest one came from a vendor CEO who said, to a group of nodding libarians (this was back in 2004) that their proprietary ILS was already OSS, because customers were free to directly manipulate the underlying Oracle database. It is amazing and distressing to hear some of the FUD that still flies around at the trade shows, and most of us commercial OSS people have a standing email-based 'war room', where we discuss refutation strategies whenever a particularly vicious attack is launched on a blog or website.

I agree with you that truly amazing things have been done already with OSS in libraries, and I'm tickled pink that some of them involve out tools. I'd say, the curve is looking darn near exponential from where I sit, as more tools come out, enabling more people to do more cool stuff. I've watched LibLime move from bringing a single table to ALA, I think back in 2004 as well, to a full-size island this midwinter, with a constant crowd vying for the attention of their staff.. very cool, and some of our stuff is under the hood. I expect to see even more dramatic changes in the market by this time next year.

Generally, two years ago, people would still walk up to our booth at ALA and say "what kind of a name is 'Open Source' for a company?' That has finally changed, but from the point of view of really shifting the landscape of library IT, we're just beginning to see the results, and I think you'll agree there's much work to be done yet. Which is a good, thing, because after all, what else would we do to occupy our time? :-)

1998? 2008? Perhaps we should focus on the destination?


Your post certainly got my attention. In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, please see my reply at:



Carl Grant
CARE Affiliates

I don't know how else to say

I don't know how else to say this, so I'll keep it plain. Your extended refutations of things I didn't say are confusing. Your Rumsfeldian ask-yourself-a-question-and-answer-it approach is condescending. Your ability to wend marketing angles through your response is masterful, and demonstrates why you're the one running a business and I'm not. Your falling back on turns of phrases like this:

"in our minds, for FLOSS to move beyond it’s pure, zealot roots and to deliver TOTAL working solutions to people’s desktops"

...is another example, precisely so, of the sentiment I called out in the original post, that it's nonsense to think of FLOSS today as being stuck on "pure, zealot roots" which need to be moved "beyond" something that isn't yet a "total" set of "working solutions" on "people's desktops". Or "TOTAL", even.

I disagree. You might need to frame your marketing pitch that way to reach the market you're aiming for, sure. But when you continue to talk that way, I continue to not want to trust you.

right on

I spent some time in a steering committee meeting this week explaining why I thought OSS discussions shouldn't be relegated to an appendix in a "how to" manual about library teachnology options. The fact that we're still talking about this concept (not even the specific pieces of the software, the entire concept) indicates to me that people either aren't paying attention or they are so focused on rebranding the idea their own way that they're not even paying attention to what is out there.

It's gotten so it's like the major media approach to almost anything "on the one hand... yet on the other hand..." when many libraries and businesses use LAMP every day at work, enterprise le el, but they dont do the handwavey OSS/FLOSS talk about it because it doesn't fit their preconceived notions of "risky" and "trendy" that they like to label OSS with.

A Trend Perhaps

I went a Fedora users conference at Rutgers in 2005 and was amazed at Carl Grant's talk. I've never seen someone walk into an open source environment and so completely dismiss the people who created the tools on which his commercial system was built. It was interesting to hear the rumbling in the audience and to listen to the questions which were asked (respectfully considering the barrage of market speak coming from the podium). It was quite a sight to see and certainly didn't give me a very good opinion of his company.