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Monday, 19 January 2009 10:47

LCA2009: Getting FOSS developers and companies to play nicely

When Bdale Garbee speaks, people in the free and open source software worlds stop and listen. Let me reword that a bit - when Bdale Garbee speaks, people in the technology industry stop and listen.

The man has an impressive CV - his first contribution to an open source project was 30 years ago and he is the open source and chief Linux technologist for Hewlett Packard.

A contributor to the Debian GNU/Linux project since 1994, Garbee has also been leader of this project, and currently is chairman of the Debian technical committee and also the acting secretary.

Hence, it came as no surprise that his talk on "Collaborating successfully with large corporations" at the Australian national Linux conference in Hobart today was well attended.

Garbee pointed out ways that FOSS and companies can find a workable middle road - and he should know as he has been with HP, which has been a very successful player in the FOSS space, since 1986.

He pointed out some major differences between the way that FOSS and proprietary software is built - open source developers create software to scratch an itch (fulfill a need of their own), do not work to a strict schedule ("I work on free software during every spare minute") and are into collaboration or sharing.

Proprietary applications are written to a schedule and have a ship date right from day one. There is no question of sharing code.


Open source gave users flexibility in how they acquired support for the technology; users could even become developers or pay someone to do development and support work, he said. This was not possible with a proprietary product as code changes could be done by only a single company.

When it came to companies, revenue, growth, differentiation (how our product is better than the same or similar product sold by a rival) and corporate reputation were important factors.

Expenses kept increasing and revenue had to keep pace; this, in turn, created opportunities for employees to move within the corporate structure.

Garbee pointed out that technology companies were not interested in competing only in delivery of commodities as the margins were very low and would not fund innovation. Companies wanted to add value that customers would pay for, with a traditional goal being control points like patents.

He said it was better to think less about control points and more about affinities between the developers and corporates and there were some such factors.

The ultimate goal for either a company or a FOSS developer was a positive user experience, he said, adding that developers, no matter what they said, wanted others to be able to use and benefit from the software they developed.

Making software useful to users was also something companies aimed for as this meant the user would be willing to pay for the product, Garbee said.

He advised developers not to be upset if a company took their work and then went about building proprietary add-ons. Of course, developers were always welcome to try and create an open source alternative to the proprietary add-on.

His advice carries weight - HP's sales of Linux servers far outstrip that of its competitors. He must be doing something right.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.



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