Originally Published: Saturday, 25 August 2001 Author: Eric S. Raymond
Published to: opinion_articles/opinion Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

VA going proprietary? Naahhh...

Eric Raymond, speaking either for the board of directors of VA or not (we're not sure) but certainly speaking from the heart, has this to say about VA Linux recent announcement that it will begin looking at proprietary software. Disclosure: Linux.com is funded by VA Linux Systems as a community resource.

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VA's announcement that it would be selling proprietary add-ons to SourceForge has gotten big coverage [1], but there is less there than meets the eye. This is a change in tactics, not strategy.

What VA didn't say in the press release, and what Larry Augustin and the PR people knew in advance I was going to say on the community news channels, is the precise reason why this is happening.

What we've found out is that there is something of a disconnect, at the big corporate customers, between how the techologists and strategy people perceive open source and how middle management preceives it. The technology and strategy people, more often than not these days, actually get it. Middle managers, a more conservative group by nature and job description, often still don't.

This is specifically a problem because VA's sales guys often find themselves talking to middle managers who don't get it or only half get it. So they do their why-open-source-is-wonderful talk -- and the reaction they get is a sort of quasi-instinctive "uh, why don't we just download it from the web and install and maintain it ourselves instead of paying you to do it?"

Rationally, this is really pretty stupid. If you add up all the time and opportunity costs associated with having a bunch of your guys learn how to do this from scratch (and not necessarily doing it competently), renting VA's experts is clearly the smarter move. Usually the prospective customer knows that with the top of his mind, even -- but there are powerful instincts in the managerial underbrain pulling the other way.

So what do you do? Tell the customer he's being stupid? No, I don't think so.

What VA is doing instead is throwing a sop to those instincts by hanging some proprietary tinsel off the product. This makes it psychologically easier for Mr. Middle Manager to sign the check; he can think "I'm buying something real" -- as if bits on a disk are more real than the people-hours in the service contract that goes with it. But there it is; most sales and marketing is founded on the reality that people aren't very rational.

If we were still in a boom time, we might still have the luxury of perfect doctrinal purity. But face it, people, it's pretty much raining crap out there macroeconomically. Capital spending is in the tank and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. Until things turn around, Mr. Middle Manager is going to be even more conservative than usual -- and thus more likely to be penny-wise and pound-foolish in the way that particularly hurts us.

We can hold on to the open-source vision, but under these circumstances we've concluded that we can't afford to be proud about how we pitch it. VA is a damn fine outfit with a lot of good people, but companies just as promising have already gone to the knackers' yard. It won't serve anybody if we go the same way. So we'll take any edge we can get, even if that means we MPL some stuff instead of GPLing it and have to have a few meg of closed code lying around.

And if you think VA has turned into just another corporate greed machine, ask yourself this -- how many companies would encourage one of their board members to post anything as brutally candid as I'm being here? But Larry Augustin knew I was going to do this and he smiled. We're still the same people and the same company that earned the Linux community's trust. I hope we'll never lose that. I'll work to be sure it's so.

So the real news here is that VA is still about open source -- if I didn't believe that, I'd be off their board of directors so fast it would make your head spin. We're just being pragmatic about how we sell the idea. Change peoples' behavior first, show them the advantages in doing so, and their hearts and minds will follow.

The religious fanatics out there won't be appeased by this, I know. I'm sure there will be cries of "Treason!", "Betrayal!", "Apostasy!" and so forth. We knew that. We'll stand it -- because surviving and thriving so we can continue to be the friends of open source is the most important service we can do for the community we come from.

[1] http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/cn/20010823/tc/va_linux_to_sell_proprietary_software_1.html -- Eric S. Raymond

"Today, we need a nation of Minutemen, citizens who are not only prepared to take arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as the basic purpose of their daily life and who are willing to consciously work and sacrifice for that freedom." -- John F. Kennedy

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