Open Tech Today - Top Stories

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Lessons from the Open Source Frontier

For governments and companies seeking to use open source software to drive a national ICT strategy or company profits, China offers a few open source lessons.

Lesson #1: If you’re in the open source business, you’re in the business of communities.

Chinese companies learned this the hard way. Initially, only foreign software companies invested in building communities in China around their products. Now, both the government and Chinese companies are in the community building business.

Is open source community building really a big deal? The Chinese government thinks so. It regards open source communities as key to its software industry and is committing more public resources toward them in its eleventh Five-Year-Plan (2006-2010).

What is the upside for companies? Mainly they seek (a) to identify and develop the open source talent needed to speed product development; and (b) to promote their products in the local market.

Lesson #2: The long-term success in open source rests on talent, not mandates.

In real estate, the rule is “location, location, location.” The open source mantra is “talent, talent, talent.” Talent is the key to the long-term viability of open source communities (and businesses). But talent – that is, people – takes time to develop.

The Chinese government is not replacing market incentives. However, in some places the market is not enough. Chinese programmers find that earning their daily bread (or rice) leaves them little time to contribute to open source communities. And so, the communities languish with scant resources and few core participants.

Education, incentives to entrepreneurs, the competitive landscape for open source solutions all contribute to the long-term development of human resources for open source.

China is adding another option for governments to encourage the maturation of the open source industry. Not by procurement mandates, but by providing resources needed for communities to grow. Money is no guarantee, but support by a public-private partnership gives new open source communities a leg up. Not every country faces the same problems. However, in countries with a dearth of open source talent, governments can play a positive role in supporting the development of open source talent, both in their schools and online communities.