A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Open for open’s sake

At the risk of losing whatever technical credibility I might have, I’ll point out that I’m a marketer. Despite a misspent youth breaking BBSes and a life as a product manager, I spent my university years learning about marketing.

One of the things that’s drilled into bright-eyed young marketers is the concept of Competitive Advantage. Simply put, it occurs when customers perceive one product or service as better than another.

That might seem like a simple notion, but it’s actually pretty vital. Unlike Comparative Advantage, which simply means company A can do something better or cheaper than company B, Competitive Advantage demands that the customer perceive this difference as valuable. So, for example, if I make widgets more cheaply than my customers and pocket the difference, I have no competitive advantage.

The number of startups with “open” in their name, circa 2012, rivals the count of those with the “cloud” moniker only a few scant years before. Open is the new black.

Today, I chaired an interesting discussion on open clouds. Three proponents of openness took the stage, and while we covered a lot of territory, I can sum the whole panel up in under 140 characters. In fact, I did.

That’s a bit unfair, and part of my mean tone comes from having to play the role of opponent so that the panel didn’t turn into an agreeing contest: only the day before, I’d implored the audience to fight for their right to general-purpose computing, claiming root was a fundamental right.

But this is a real problem for supporters of openness like myself. Many of these “open” initiatives are busy defining themselves by what they’re not, rather than by emphasizing what they are. Open for openness’ sake isn’t a competitive advantage. It’s the argument to dogma, a hope that somehow markets will favor a particular vendor because of their noble martyrdom.

If giants like Amazon weren’t busy innovating, we’d be right to complain. But Amazon keeps adding new features at breakneck speeds, cutting prices, and rounding out its offerings. Simply saying that these giants are evil isn’t enough. Open proponents need to say why they’re good.

Consider WordPress. It has plenty of closed opponents: Blogger, Facebook pages, and more. And yet WordPress thrives. It has a great ecosystem.

It also has a network of regional events developers can learn from.

WordPress doesn’t spend a lot of time telling the world it’s not Blogger. It just works on being awesome. It knows what it’s for.

Some folks get this. Adrian Cockroft of Netflix told the audience here that the company is open sourcing many of the tools it’s developed to manage a service that, at times, transmits 40% of the packets on the Internet. Facebook has shared its data center designs. And Rackspace is moving gradually to a world where their data centers are entirely Openstack-based.

These organizations have good reason to be open about their foundational technologies. It helps them avoid going into a technological dead end, because others can adopt and enhance things. It’s good karma, particularly for firms that have been built on open source. And it’s easier to recruit talent when your tools are out there.

But these are internal benefits. They make it easier to hire, or to invest. They aren’t customer-facing differentiators. What WordPress has done by being open is create an ecosystem of designers, hosters, conferences, and supporters that makes the product a better choice than closed alternatives. I don’t use WordPress for this blog because I feel noble: I use it because it’s better.

This is a lesson today’s panelists need to take to heart. Sure, they need to draw some battle lines, to show that the plethora of open-y, stack-y things are friends, pitted in a loose alliance against Big Bad Closed Clouds. Sure, it’s useful to tell the world that proprietary machine image formats are dangerous.

I want to love open because of all the cool things it is, not the bad things it isn’t. The sooner we start talking about the tangible benefits it offers, instead of all the scary monsters it might avoid, the sooner the open proponents start winning over enterprise buyers.

Right now, “open” is like the awkward sidekick in a John Hughes movie. A bit weird, generally nice and supportive. You like him. But you’d never sleep with him.

Put another way: I want to love you because you’re hot, not because it’s noble to do so.