New Life Forms in the Open-Source Ecosystem: Redmonk, Mellon Foundation, And Some Newbies

This is the first of two posts about Redmonk. If you don’t know about Redmonk, then you don’t know all you should know about open-source, and you should visit their site to learn more about them.

I first dealt with one of the Remonkers in the summer of 2004. I was then part of IBM’s Software Group (SWG) Strategy Department and was working on a study of the effects of commiditization in the software industry. [1]

The team engaged a number of industy analysts, and I recall hearing Steve participate in one of them. His thoughts were on the mark.

I started following Redmonk much more actively in 2006 when I began to blog actively, as they both provide useful guidance on how to blog effectively, and also provide much insight into the software industry while doing so.

To this day their blogs are the only ones — besides mine of course — that I read each and every day: [2]

I first met them in person last November, at the SWG annual briefing for software analysts, in which IBM brings in a number of respected analysts to give them SWG’s view of the software industry, IBM’s role in it, and some of IBM’s future plans.

I returned again today, and joined them all for breakfast. A nearby IBMer took a picture of us together:

Dave and the Redmonk Team
Dave and the Redmonk Team

Left to right: Redmonk’s Michael Coté, Redmonk’s Steve O’Grady, moi, Redmonk’s James Governor.

We spent an hour or so together, I took only one line of notes:

How to write Michael Cote's name in HTMLCoté in HTML

I did this since to record Mike’s response when I asked him how to render his surname correctly in HTML. He said that you need to use a special character, eacute: é, written ampersand-e-a-c-u-t-e-semicolon. [3]

While we were meeting last November, I told the Redmonker’s that I had been thinking about writing two posts that were in part inspired by Redmonk.

The previous month, in October, 2006, I attended a meeting in Indianapolis, Licensing and Policy Summit for Software Sharing in Higher Education: Trip Report. While there I learned that the meeting had been funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

Thinking of that, as well as the work of the Redmonk team, suggested the following:

New Life Forms in the Open-Source Ecosystem

Steve O’ Grady is one of the best bloggers about matters open-source and some useful insight can be gained from just the title his blog: tecosystems: because technology is just another ecosystem.

The key word is ecosystem.

Steve’s blog title reminds us that technology is an ecosystem, not an isolated activity.

The same holds true for open-source.

Another useful concept is that of the “keystone company.” A keystone company is one which has achieved a dominant position with its ecosystem, and thus enjoys enormous advantages because of the many opportunies that are available. Examples include Wallmart in mass-market retail, Microsoft in software, and IBM in mainframes. See Creating Value in Your Business Ecosystem, which makes mention of both Microsoft and Walmart.

I think one way to track the progress of open-source is to view it as an ecosystem, and useful insight into progress can be found by looking for new life-forms that appear in this ecosystem.

For example, the Eclipse Project has grown from an initial donation of code by IBM into a full ecosystem that is now the base of a software industry that provides commercial plugins build on top of the open-source Eclipse infrastructure. Today that industry accounts for several hundreds of years of income to the commercial partners in the Eclipse Project.
So what appeared as “just another” open-source project six years back is now the basis of an industry.

I learned of another new life-form in October, 2006, when I attended a “Licensing Summit” in Indianapolis, Indiana. (I was invited to participate since Bob Sutor, IBM’s VP of Open Standards and Open Source, had a prior commitment.)

I learned that the nation’s major research universities, while vital to our economy, are — viewed as a business — a small part of the economy, and there is thus a lack of commercial software that meets the specific needs of universities. For examples, universities don’t just write paychecks its employees, but have to deal with multiple funding sources and accounting; for example, government grants, private donations, scholarships, teaching assistantships, and so forth.

The universities were also interested in alternatives to such commercial elearning programs as Blackboard.

As a result two open-source projects were started by a consortium of universities, Sakai and Kuali.

Sakai was the first and addressed the elearning issue. Kuali came next, to offer customized financial managment. Both were written in Java, at the enterprise-level, by which I mean they were built as serious programs, not research toys.

The purpose of the conference was to address a new issue in the drafting of open-source licenses and Contributor License Agreements (CLA’s). Some open-source projects require CLA’s from individual contributors or contributors who work for a contributing organizations. In the latter case, the organization vouches that the employee is authorized to make the contribution on their empoyer’s behalf.

This raised a new issue in that the academic community includes professors. As part of their research Professors may obtain patents. Usually, their university gets the first chance to use the patent, but if they decline to do then the patent rights revert to the patent-holder. But CLA’s typically included a patent assignment, and the university were concerned that by signing a CLA they might be licensing a patent that they didn’t own; moreover, it was difficult, if not impossible, to determine when this was being done.

Several employees of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation were present, including an attorney. If you visit the Foundation’s page Research in Information Technology, you will learn that:

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation program in Research in Information Technology (RIT) is dedicated to supporting the thoughtful application of information technology to a wide range of scholarly purposes. The Foundation is interested in promoting the study of uses of digital technologies that can be applied to research and online and distance learning and teaching. The Foundation also supports investigations of new technical approaches to the archiving of textual and multimedia materials that require improved search and storage techniques and improvements in user-interfaces. The impact of information technology (and especially digitization) on scholarship, scholarly communication, and libraries is indisputable.

In particular (emphasis added), the page says that:

Current Programs

The Foundation’s work with JSTOR, ARTstor, and Ithaka has helped to define the following set of guidelines that we hope proposals to the RIT program will satisfy:

2. Technology that benefits multiple institutions.

The Foundation will support development efforts that leverage resources for the benefit of multiple institutions. Such technologies may involve the development of open source, generalized applications, and infrastructural tools of benefit to institutions traditionally served by the Foundation, but whose development on an individual campus or from a single not-for-profit organization would be prohibitively expensive or whose cost would be difficult for an individual institution to justify. Resources required for generalized solutions are often far greater than a single campus or organization would individually commit because generalized solutions must support a far greater range of possible needs.

Among its efforts to support generalized solutions, the Foundation has funded uPortal, a consolidated, personalized, intuitive gateway to information resources; OKI, an extensible framework for Learning Management Systems; OCW, free worldwide non-commercial access to the educational materials of all 2,000 courses taught at MIT; and PKI, an open-source, end-to-end, inter-institutional, public key infrastructure. All of these projects involve technologies designed to benefit multiple institutions.

4. Technology that provides a significant cost savings (including any relevant economies of scale) and/or provides a cost-effective way of meeting the specific needs of the Foundation’s constituencies (cheaper, better, or preferably both).

Rising costs continue to confront higher education. Caught between demands for additional services and declining rates of revenue growth, colleges and universities must do more without relying upon continuing tuition hikes. Clear institutional priorities and cost containment are part of the solution.

Technology can also be a part of the solution. However, on many campuses, with its high fixed costs, technology has become a part of the problem. We must use new technologies to contain costs, by working collaboratively to develop new, modular, open-source tools and approaches—and by leveraging our collective skills and expertise.

In most instances, Foundation support will facilitate solutions to common needs that result in an overall cost savings for involved institutions, as exhibited in the JSTOR model. Apart from the value of preserving and promoting access to print publications, the Foundation was drawn early on to the economics of the JSTOR project: facilitating easy access to digitized content might potentially free up enormous amounts of valuable library space at many research libraries and academic institutions by permitting those institutions to remove journal literature from their shelves. The cumulative savings (measured in the high cost of new library space) could exceed the total capital investment.

Without Foundation support, institutions might individually require a very long time to introduce information technology solutions. Many institutions and individuals simultaneously attempt to solve the same set of problems. By joining forces, a collaborative effort can leverage skills and software developers across institutions of higher education, and yield cost effective solutions and/or a significant cost savings to the benefit of all.

For example, academic institutions have struggled with implementing their ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) applications. There are concerns about the viability of ERP vendors and the compatibility of higher education culture and ERP business models. Institutions have encountered much higher costs than expected, and many have experienced lower, rather than enhanced functionality. Moreover, few smaller institutions can afford an ERP solution.

A collaborative approach for sharing applications could substantially decrease the individual cost of ownership, offer enhanced functionality to the whole community, and offer a much more affordable and appropriate support structure.

5. Compelling, demonstrable technology for which funding is required to create fully shareable versions, expanded features, or improved reliability.

The Foundation favors development projects that build upon existing, well–established, and reliable tools and efforts. In the world of venture capital, this is referred to as ‘second stage’ (or ‘later’) financing. For example, the Foundation supported the development of uPortal version 2.0. Version 1.0 had been extensively tested and was already in production at the University of British Columbia; version 2.0 is a fully exportable version that meets the needs of a wide variety of colleges and universities.

The Foundation is looking for technologies that are already being built by an institution but which, with additional resources, could be used by many.

The Foundation favors projects that are easily shared, extensible, and reliable. As in the case of the PKI, OKI, and uPortal projects, the Foundation prefers the development of open-source, modular applications, and open standards and specifications that are freely available and usable cost-effectively. The aim is to allow other institutions to more easily tailor components to their infrastructures and modify such tools to their particular needs without having to confront huge, up-front software acquisition costs.

6. Technology for which intellectual property rights are available.

The Foundation favors making access to digital materials as broadly available as possible, and will therefore favor projects for which intellectual property (IP) rights are available.

Ironically, the movement toward the use of modular components, which accelerates software development and the usability of new technology, can complicate the acquisition of such rights. Grantees must be scrupulous in identifying the source of all the IP they use under their grants and must secure the rights to third party technology, in a form that is consistent with the Foundation’s IP agreement.

7. Technology for which there is a credible support and self-sufficiency plan.

Support infrastructures for technology in institutions of higher education are rarely financially self-sustaining and they almost never serve multiple institutions. Indeed, support is often an after-thought in institutional technology endeavors. Drawing upon the JSTOR model (Note *), the Foundation will favor capital investments in production models that offer clear potential for self-sufficiency of the grant effort and favor projects that investigate different production and support alternatives prior to final implementation of the production model. The PKI and uPortal projects, for example, involve sustainable long-term support models.

Mellon’s “Research in Information Technology” project is led by Ira. H. Fuchs. Ira attended the Licensing Summit.

As you can see from the above except, the Mellon Foundation has invested not only in Sakai and Kuali, but in many other open-source projects.

Moreover, some of the most helpful suggestions came from an attorney, Barnaby Gibson, counsel to Ithaka.

Ithaka is a fascinating organization, and I suggest you visit its web site to learn about it.

Guess who created Ithakja? Yes, the Andrew Mellon Foundation!

Not only does the Foundation support open-source projects but it created Ithaka to provide a additional kind of support for tese efforts, including providing legal counsel.

One of my “take aways” from the conference, though it took a few weeks to put the pieces together, was that I had just witnessed three new open-source “life forms” that were previously unknown to me:

  • A consortium of major research universities that was creating open-source projects tailored some of the unique needs of academia;
  • A major foundation that was providing not only funding, but funding based on a very sophisticated knowledge of open-source and a nuanced approach to creating solutions to help academia;
  • Ithaka, a new kind of support organization to help those engaged in open-source activities.

The above observations were on my mind when I mentioned to the Redmonkers one year ago that I would be writing a post about them.

In the year since, we have seen several more new life-forms in the open-source ecosystem. Here are some that come to mind.

There have been several more legal support organizations formed, such as Eben Moglen’s Free Software Law Center (I have the name wrong now, will fix later.)

The XO Laptop from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPL) Project, started by MIT’s Media Lab.

The arrival of K12 educators as a very interested, and increasingly organized group, as shown by the first national conference on education and open-source, K12 Open Minds, that was held in Indianapolis a few weeks ago.

Google. Google has not only built the world’s largest privately-owned computer network, consisting of millions of processors running Linux, but has just recently announced a new effort to provide more open access to phone technology by using open-source and the open-source development model.

It’s also worth noting that just as new life forms appear, other life forms struggle to stay alive. Witness Sun’s struggle trying to maintain control over Java while proclaiming it is open-source, asa well as Microsoft’s difficulties with the OOXML standard, and so forth.

Also, Microsoft and other commercial software companies should keep in mind Satchel Paige’s sage advice:

“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you”

We open-source folks, however, can keep looking forward: to watch the open-source ecosystem evolve, and to welcome its new members as they appear on the scene.


3 Trackbacks

  1. By Chris Coppola on November 8, 2007 at 16:55

    Open source, ecosystems, and life forms

  2. […] New Life Forms in the Open-Source Ecosystem: Redmonk, Mellon Foundation, And Some Newbies « The Way… “If you don’t know about Redmonk, then you don’t know all you should know about open-source, and you should visit their site to learn more about them.” Too kind, Dave, too kind. (tags: redmonk OSS) […]

  3. […] sakai, technology by Chris I just ran across an interesting post of David Shields’ called New Life Forms in the Open-Source Ecosystem: Redmonk, Mellon Foundation, And Some Newbies. I like the way David talks about "new life-forms" appearing in an open source ecosystem […]

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