Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Open Source - It's Not Just For Commodity Markets Anymore

I am off to the Open Source Think Tank conference in Napa this week (along with Matt Asay, Marten Mickos and Gianugo Rabellino) with one burning question on my mind: how do you leverage open source "goodness" into vibrant community "greatness."

To torture a metaphor, making a product open source in an emerging market is like making water free in a land where the horses don't know they're thirsty. Going open source is not enough, the challenge is to also educate the developer market about a problem they don't know exists.

Where open source has been most successful in the enterprise has been in allowing a new entrant to gain a toehold in an existing commercial market. Open source "goodness" allowed MySQL to get traction in the crowded SQL database space and allowed JBoss to sneak past IBM and BEA in the app server space.

An open source strategy has clear value when the market is well established. In the case of WaveMaker, however, we are evangelizing a new category. Because the last ten years of web development has been code-centric, Java and C# developers don't wake up in the morning looking for visual tools to help them build their Web 2.0 applications.

A sign of how far the market has gotten away from the good old days of PowerBuilder and visual programming is that people think the Ruby on Rails is a good high productivity alternative to Java and Spring. Substituting one complex code framework for another is not exactly a dramatic step forward in democratizing web development.

Larry Augustin helped me think about this over breakfast last month. He pointed out that the traditional way to evangelize a new market is to pour lots of money into analyst relations and PR. The open source way to do this is to make a better mousetrap available to an open source community and stand back while the world beats a path to your door.

This is probably overly optimistic. Making a product open source lowers the barriers to adoption but doesn't actually drive adoption, particularly as enterprise IT remembers both the promises and shortfalls of Rapid Application Development in its previous incarnations.

Creating a community means finding a way to make developers aware of a problem they don't always know they have. Making WaveMaker available under open source is a first step, but the real work will come in creating a community around WaveMaker that evangelizes the need for more productive web tools.

Got ideas about how we can build the WaveMaker community - let me know!


kedoin said...

I still remain confused about exactly what WaveMaker is and what it can do. In part, that's because I didn't make it through the Flash demo. I only lasted to the point where the header was being inserted and boxes were being moved around on the screen. All the zooming in and out was distracting and it seemed like it was going to be a long time before the meat of the demo was going to occur. The Rails screencast gets to building code much, much, more quickly.

In my opinion, the successful open source projects have succeeded because of a tight group of "alpha geek" evangelists. They were able to grow their group largely through word of mouth until they got some reasonable traction and a community was formed.

That said, they all started out as lightweight, somewhat anarchistic projects. Looking at the WaveMaker site and tag lines like, "Web-Fast, CIO-safe" it just doesn't have the appeal of the usual open software project. For example, I doubt you can find any reference to CIO's in the Rails sites. The goal is Getting Things Done, not conforming to the corporate norm.

Also, I wonder if Java and C# developers are the one's you should be targeting. Is WaveMaker easy enough for people (not developers) to create applications? If so, then it seems like the target would be the technical web designers. Or perhaps analysts or others in the corporate environment who usually find themselves at the mercy of the IT department to build that small-app that would do XYZ. Could WaveMaker be the thing that would empower them?

Hard core developers never think they need visual tools. Emacs and vi is all they'll ever need. However, people who need to manipulate information - they're the ones who need a visual tool to get them going. They know what they want. They just need a path to get there.

Could WaveMaker be Hypercard for Web 2.0?

Christopher Keene said...

Great comments - thank you! We are absolutely targeting the HyperCard 2.0/PowerBuider 2.0 world. You are right that our web site and demo are more "old school" enterprise software and probably wouldn't appeal to DHH and his merry band of zealots. Is there such a thing as an Alpha Geek Filemaker Pro dude?