To open source or not open source, that is the question

Thanks to Ted Haegar I came across a piece by Tony Whitmore on a similar topic to my Novell Open Audio review. Tony raises a couple of good ideological questions about the development models at work within Novell, more precisely around the AppArmor and XGL products. Whilst each software project is unique in its own way his questioning of the strategies employed by Novell does beg the difficult question, how open source should product development be?

When I mull this issue around in my head it is like there are a couple of little devils sitting on my shoulders whispering sweet nothings. On one side sits the 'hardcore' open source evangelist devil who looks surprisingly like a drunk fluffy penguin dressed in dirty, well-worn clothes. He whispers in my ear that all software development should be free and open to ensure clean, secure code and a strong community both supporting the product and the FOSS community at large. However on the other shoulder sits a clean cut, black turtleneck wearing cat that seems to go by a different name each year. He presents a flashy keynote on the benefits of developing software products with a clear vision and a small, well controlled development team. What is confusing is that they both have some very good points along with vocal opposition in some quarters.

Novell at present are threading a tricky needle between the opinions of both devils. Their challenge lies in creating a strong community of well supported and stable products whilst at the same time introducing a number of "gee-wiz" features that are unique so to generate enough buzz to outshine their competitor's alternatives. Open source is great for building strong communities and stable products because everyone can see and take part in development. Unfortunately this same model makes marketing a nightmare because it has a high 'yawn' factor. Take for example XGL, it made a huge splash a few months ago mainly because Novell came out of nowhere to introduce it into their Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop line. This splash put the spotlight on SLED like never before and really pushed it into the forefront of viable Linux desktop alternatives. However if XGL development had been undertaken in a purely open source manner with its conception well publicised and discussed the eventual product and marketing potential would have been considerably different. Not only would it have probably taken a different evolutionary path but more importantly its marketing pull on SLED's launch would have been insignificant.

Whilst closed development is arguably better in the early stages of development from an efficiency and marketing perspective over the long-term an open source approach is far superior. Now that XGL has gone through its silent phase and emerged to an eager audience it is good to see Novell have open sourced the code and are focusing on getting the technology mature and broadly accepted. Personally I would like to see eDirectory open sourced mainly because it lost its 'wow' factor a long time ago and could stand to gain a significant amount by being accepted by the wider open source movement. A significant part of this acceptance would be seamless integration into existing Linux distributions in the same manner as Apache, MySQL and PHP have achieved. There is a real need for a robust, high-quality, open source directory server as it is the centrepiece around which nearly all office networks are built. A few years ago Red Hat open sourced the Fedora Directory Server but I have not been impressed when I have experimented with it. This is mainly because FDS is OpenLDAP on steroids rather than a stable, scalable and industry proven directory server alternative that can go toe to toe with Microsoft's Active Directory.

The other factor to take into account with eDirectory is that Novell does not really make any money out of it yet it is the cornerstone of nearly all their income streams. Consequently open sourcing this key piece of infrastructure and encouraging its adoption and integration in other platforms will broaden's Novell's potential market. This will mean when the next 'gee-wiz' product gets released it is just that little bit easier to sell to prospective customers because a considerable portion of the puzzle is already in place. To open source or not open source is not a clean cut strategy but one that seems to hold most potential when used equally in appropriate portions. It would be nice in the ideal world to have a completely open development model, but deep down I think we all want to get marketed to by at least one flashy, out of the blue product that makes us wonder how we got so far through our lives without it. Novell with XGL (and to a lesser extent AppArmor) achieved both goals with an intelligent, balanced approach and for that they should be commended.