Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What Does It Mean To Be Open?

In one of the few quiet moments this week, I found myself recalling a recent discussion with a colleague about a certain proprietary software vendor.Our discussion centered on the incredible level of loyalty this particular vendor has been able to create among its employees and clients.It has reached a point, in our opinion, where these people actually believe that GIS begins and ends with their software.They seem blinded by the light, and are closed to any other vendor's solutions, or approaches to GIS projects that did not include their software.

Wow.How can these people be so blind? After all, shouldn't a professional be open to all possible solutions in order to find the right solution? Is that not the basic tenet of successful business?

I made the decision years ago to take a different path when I opened my mind to open source software.To those who felt their software vendor was omnipotent, I was committing professional suicide.To me, it was simply an option that offered a business model that proprietary software companies did not offer.During the first several months, I met many people in the open source community.They loved their work, collaborated with each other between countries and continents, and respected each other.My impression was that they knew something the others did not - that GIS was not about the software, but about the use of spatial technologies to solve problems.Was I in heaven?

But then"¦ This past week witnessed one of the largest events in the history of open source GIS software, if not the entire GIS industry. The mighty Autodesk stepped up to the plate and released its latest edition of MapGuide to the world as open source (Boom! Did you hear that?!).

To those of you who might not understand the potential impact of this event, this is a big deal.The announcement took place in Orlando, Florida at Autodesk University (read Adena Schutzberg's article on the announcement).Autodesk reports that 60 person-years went into the development of this release (they probably count lunch, commutes, conferences and that coder named Billy who no one has ever met but everyone speaks of fondly).Regardless of the actual number of hours, no one can challenge the fact that this release is big.

Since the open source community is "open," you would expect this week to be full of healthy discussions about the future, the possibilities this new addition to the community might offer, and the challenges that are ahead in learning about a new platform.Instead, we're talking a lot about this corporate giant who has just walked into our living room, sat down on our couch, and started eating our Cheetos.How will we work with this giant? Is this giant friendly? Just how smart is this giant? What are this giant's likes and dislikes (besides our Cheetos)? To the open-minded people of the open source community, you'd expect to see dozens, if not hundreds of interesting discussion topics, each one ripe with excitement "¦ literally bursting with energy.

Yes, we got energy, all right.It began with a trickle of e-mails on that first day of Autodesk's announcement, followed by a few hundred e-mails and off-line discussions over the following days.Members of the open source community were angry.The feelings of betrayal and sense of takeover were palpable.It was "¦ surprising.But why?

There are legitimate reasons for this negative response.To understand, we must summarize the events that led up to the "big news" on November 28.It seems that more than a year before the announcement, Autodesk began to explore the possibility of open source as a component of its business.Its exploration led it to MapServer, a leading open source Internet mapping platform originally developed at the University of Minnesota.They met several members of the MapServer community, including the original author, prominent core software developers, and several respected members of the MapServer community who had spent countless hours contributing to the success of the software.Over the weeks that followed, Autodesk apparently became enamored with the MapServer community, and decided to intensify the discussions and get serious.

To do so, the company needed to create a closed forum, subject to non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), so that the idea of contributing to open source would not become public prematurely.This makes sense for a public company in a competitive market.Therefore, the original author of MapServer, representatives of the University of Minnesota, and several members of the MapServer community signed NDAs and began the work of making this idea reality.In the end, it was decided that a new foundation would be formed to provide a home for both MapServer and MapGuide.This new foundation would provide a legal entity within which these two communities could come together and collaborate.It was also decided that MapGuide would be renamed MapServer Enterprise.So as not to be left out, the original MapServer would be renamed MapServer Cheetah.

To complete the deal, a letter of commitment was signed by all involved, including Autodesk representatives and those members of the MapServer community under the NDA agreements.And alas "¦ a new collaborative effort was born on November 28th, 2005.The baby weighed 8 lbs.4 oz., but landed like a ball of lead.

Here's the core issue: Those who signed the letter on behalf of the MapServer Community did not own the software they were representing and they operated in secrecy.To some in the MapServer Community (estimated to be several thousand people), this did not feel right.Last Monday's announcement came as a shock to 99% of those who have been using MapServer for years.Having been a part of an open source community, where ideas are shared more freely and more often than dinner rolls at supper on Walton's Mountain, this event did not pass the straight face test.Some members felt betrayed.

Of course, other issues would surface as well, such as the new software names.Certainly the MapServer they all loved so much could not be relegated to the role of "Cheetah," while MapGuide was granted the title MapServer Enterprise.In these discussions, Autodesk was accused of taking advantage of the MapServer "brand" and stealing the momentum that MapServer had gained over the past few years.Members of the MapServer Community also worried that the term "Enterprise" might indicate Autodesk's software to be superior to their valued MapServer Cheetah, which to these members of the MapServer Community, was not possible.[Since this article was written Autodesk has decided to change the product name.""Ed.]

And then it struck me.

My beloved open source community was not immune to the effects of brand loyalty after all.The defensiveness of some of its members demands an appreciation for their devotion to the MapServer Community.For many of these folks, the decision to work with open source was not an easy one. For all of these folks, there have been countless hours of work in the trenches solving problems with spatial technology.But not just any spatial technology - their beloved MapServer.

So, maybe I was too hard on all of those folks who are so devoted to their proprietary software.And, maybe I should not have been so surprised at this week's activity on the MapServer listserv.We are all subject to loyalty and the blinders loyalty can place on you.When you spend a third of each day (at a minimum) focused on a software platform that supports the bulk of your work, you tend to be defensive when an outsider arrives, whatever their intentions.It takes time to get used to it.

In fact, it appears that as the days go by, the MapServer Community is gaining an appreciation for the possibilities the new Foundation and their new partner offer.Hopefully, the new Foundation can dig in and get to the business at hand.

To help ease the pain, allow me to offer the MapServer Community some points to ponder.First, keep in mind that the people at Autodesk who signed that letter did so in secrecy as well.Most people within the Autodesk organization did not know what was happening either.Based on my contacts in Florida, these same people are very excited about the possibilities the new foundation offers.They are curious about open source, the MapServer Community, and the communication model that is so central to open source organizations.Imagine that - they are curious about us!

Second, the people who helped make the Foundation happen on behalf of the MapServer Community did not seek out Autodesk.Autodesk came to them.Once the idea was on the table, these people did what they felt was right.There was no precedent for them to work from; this event represents the first of its kind.Allow me to say that again: this event represents the first of its kind.Conversations with several of them have convinced me that their intentions were pure and they truly believe that Autodesk has the best intentions as well.The MapServer Community has put its trust in these people for years, basing its work on the code that many of them write, so I believe a little faith is warranted.

And third, this event was inevitable.Sooner or later, some major player was going to learn enough about the open source community to realize how much it has to offer the GIS industry, and the MapServer Community was an obvious first stop.Therefore, it was only a matter of time before one of them would take the boldest of moves and break ranks.Autodesk has made that move, and we owe the company the opportunity to hold up its end of the bargain and become a valued partner.Sure, there are a lot of questions pertaining to Autodesk's motives, goals and plans.But these questions will be answered in time. We should give Autodesk enough leeway to prove itself.I believe the company has earned that, given the fact that it was the first to make such a bold move.

And to our new friends at Autodesk, be warned.Open community might not, in all cases, be open minded on all things MapServer.But we are good people, so be patient.You will find in our midst some of the toughest software people in the business.These folks will stretch your software in directions you never intended just to see if it breaks.And it will break.But in the coming months, your software will also improve, and our industry will be the better for it.

To all of you, I cannot stress enough the importance of not taking our eyes off the ball.While I may excuse our loyalty to our software, I cannot justify it.MapServer, MapServer Cheetah, or whatever we might call it, is not the Holy Grail.There will always be other software to consider, another partner to work with, another option to experience, and another problem to solve.It is all about development in an open environment.Let's not forget that.

I suggest we meet Autodesk half way, and help define a foundation that protects and provides for all our goals and interests.I think we should assume Autodesk is truly excited about the opportunity to work with the open source community.What if November 28th is the day we all look back on as the day things changed for open source ...for the better?