I was in Geneva last week, holding a Open Source seminar with a few selected IT directors of various UN organizations. Bright minds, needless to say, and definitely an intriguing day full of discussions and insights. Lecturing is a great way to learn, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions I’ve been asked: one, in particular, got me thinking even though I guess I answered that a million times already. I was asked about a good value proposition to pitch embracing Open Source to a non-IT CEO: a bread-and-butter question, but the way it was asked, the moment I was questioned about it, the body language or something else just started a flurry of thoughts that kept me busy for most of my way home.
While driving back to Milano, I called my wife and told her that, since I was returning through France, I would have stopped by a supermarket to buy some cheese. And this is when everything came together. I was going to stop in a randomly picked grocery store, shopping for cheese since, being in France, it must have been good. I had no particular address, no recommended shop, no idea of what I should have been buying: I just trusted the idea of French cheese being, in average, good stuff. As I should have expected, my bag full of stinky matter has been quite good overall, but I had some unpleasant surprises and a few well below-par bits of commercial matter.
I’m starting to think this is the same for Open Source: just like French cheese, Italian shoes or German cars, what you’ve got is a concept, a perception, a general idea built upon hard facts and experience creating allure and fascination, but at the end of the day you still have to do your math. Italian shoes are, generally speaking, very well known for their quality and design, but of course we do have our share of poor manufactures, not to mention counterfeits. German cars are by and large reliable mechanical masterpieces, but there are exceptions indeed. French cheese is usually a godsend, but sometimes it can be just some stinky rotten milk.
That’s strikingly similar to Open Source: as a development and distribution methodology, Open Source software has a wealth of experience and track record along the lines of better oversight, increased standard compliance, lesser vendor lock-in and so on. The Open Source proposition is attracting and enticing, yet it’s not Midas touch or a philosopher’s stone. Open Source will not and cannot turn bad software into excellent stuff, transform a proprietary and closed company into a good community citizen, or solve a customer IT problem just like magic but, in average, it will be good stuff. Open Source is a German car, an Italian shoe or a mold of French cheese. In most cases Open Source can be the best solution, just as expected. But do exercise your judgement, look for recommendations, make sure you’re not dealing with a counterfeit. In a word, be pragmatic. However, don’t resist the lure: sell it to your CEO.