Stage Two of Open Source Evolution

We have always said that Open Source could likely follow the evolution pattern of the PC's introduction during the mainframe era. PCs slowly "oozed" into the workplace. Lots of mistakes were made in the early stages of PC evolution, mostly by firms who tried to do it on their own and were being too careless or too creative. The landscape was littered with bad implementations, dangerous security, and more bad practices than good. Plenty of vendors were born out of necessity - making their living bouncing from client to client like ancient story-tellers moving village-to-village sharing the sacred secrets.

For those of us who believed in Open Source in the "birth" stage, we knew the day would come where nearly every firm would be using Open Source in some way. This would accomplish market "breadth", but not equate to "depth" of use. It would be the sign that we had achieved the magical second stage - The Toe Hold. This would be the segue into the third stage where Open Source will transition from an experiment to a market player. If the entire Open Source techno-sphere evolves in a cohesive way, we'll see Open Source move from just a tiny portion of the market to a significant player. What is the measure of significant player? What percentage of the market share is held by Mac or Firefox? I would consider those numbers to be the floor rather than the ceiling of success for Open Source.

Recent data from Gartner shows that we have probably achieved that second stage - stating that Open Source is present in 85% of companies.. and that the remainder expect to implement Open Source in the coming year. Though not stated, anecdotal information would support that we don't have depth of use within those companies. By all measures, though, Open Source is still moving forward on nearly all fronts; applications, network tools, operating system variants, embedded system, and more.

While we're entering the next stage where firms will gradually try to expand the use of Open Source within their firms (and may discover errors in their selected approach), the same Gartner study also cited that 69% of the firms already using Open Source have no formal use policy. Like all technologies, Open Source expansion within an enterprise will follow the natural progression through the 3 classic stages of Struggle, Control, and finally Leverage. The Gartner study shows that while some firms are entering Control, most are still in Struggle.

Firms need to understand the impacts of Open Source on company direction and value. Policies and procedures should be constructed that monitor (at a minimum) and manage (optimum). This can't be a "set it and forget it" effort that starts and ends with an executive memo. It requires a thoughtful strategy that includes operational and legal components. The longer you wait to create this policy, the greater the risk that you'll need to audit and remediate everything you have in place (known and unknown to the executive team). You need to create an on-going mechanism that reviews your enterprise teams for compliance with the policy. And finally, you need to continuously tune the policy to adapt to the changing Open Source and business landscape.

I'm not sure that we'll see that explosion of vendors necessary for the evolution to the next stage, but there is clearly still a parallel with the past... that companies don't perfectly implement evolutionary technologies. While we'll see an increase in the number of Open Source consultancies, there are still very few vendors that can guide you through the policy creation process.

If you're an influencer or decision maker for Open Source in your enterprise, make 2009 the year that you validate your policies and determine how to best expand your Open Source use... and start seeking out vendors to aid you in both the strategic and tactical use of Open Source.

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