Monday, December 4, 2006

How Open Source Does Product Marketing

A common objection to Open Source is the perception that Open Source development will not be well focused or targeted. People are used to development that is directed by one company in an extremely focused manner, driven by a product marketing process. Some mature Open Source projects do perform their product marketing the way a company would. But while a company generally would develop an overall strategy that drives all of its software development, there is no global planning authority for Open Source, and no overarching strategy followed by all Open Source developers. However, it's an error to ask for such a thing: you can't compare Open Source to a company, it's an entire industry. A central planning authority for an entire industry would indicate something other than an open market. The product marketing for the global Open Source community operates in the way that a capitalist nation operates its economy, rather than the way a company plans its products.

The paradigm by which Open Source does product marketing can be described as a massively-parallel drunkard's walk filtered by a Darwinistic process. First, very many people all over the world develop whatever they want, going in any direction they wish without any central coordination. Out of this process come many potential products that would not interest more than a few other people, some products that are interesting to at least fifty people, and a few products that are interesting to millions of people.

Fifty people who want the same thing, but are geographically distributed all around the world, can form a viable software development team via the Internet. The spare time of fifty people who are otherwise employed turns out to be sufficient resource to enable the development of large and complex software products, and of course the size of the development team increases as the product matures and becomes of interest to more people. Thus, by leveraging upon the excellent collaboration that is possible when using Open Source licensing, it is possible to initiate and successfully carry out projects that would otherwise be beyond the capability of any of the participating entities.

But how do 50 people who haven't met work together to form a viable software product? Part of the reason this works so well is that software is extremely modular by nature, and thus many people can work on different segments of the software, almost autonomously, if they can come to agreement about how the pieces fit together. A good example of this is the Debian GNU/Linux Distribution. This system includes more than 16,000 software packages maintained by over 1000 volunteer developers in many nations around the world. When these packages are combined, the result is a reliable and well-integrated system. That system has supervised experiments while in orbit on the Space Shuttle, and has a user community second in size only to Red Hat (yes, it's bigger than Novell).

But how can we develop products when everyone has the freedom to go their own way and there isn't a real boss? This seems odd to business people, until they realize that this is exactly how capitalism works in democratic countries. In the broader economy of a capitalistic nation, many companies set out to develop products without any central guidance from the government. They all compete with each other, and some products succeed and build a market while other products fail. Loose collaborations arise between companies for the purpose of building markets for new products. The role of the government, the only entity that conceivably could guide the economy, is in general limited to the injection or removal of capital from the economy, tax incentives and funding programs, and the enforcement of laws designed to create fair markets.

Most sensible people have accepted that a "sure thing" is rare in gambling or stock-picking, and yet they expect marketing departments to make reliable forecasts in guiding new product development. Marketing departments have no crystal ball. If a sufficient number of self-guided developers are available, a drunkard's walk strategy will outperform conventional product marketing. The massively-parallel drunkard's walk tries many different paths, and thus has a higher probability of accessing a successful path. The Darwinistic filtering is what recognizes that a particular path is successful.

Most business people are adamant that they want to live in a free market economy, and that the government should not take a strong guiding role in determining what products will be produced and how they are made. They say this because they understand that the free market is more likely to produce good products and a healthy economy than any central planning process. It should be no surprise to them, then, that the open-market-like paradigm of Open Source can sometimes do a better job than the central control of marketing departments and management at creating desirable products.