"The logic is compelling; depending on closed source code is an unacceptable strategic business risk. So much so that I believe it will not be very long until closed-source single-vendor acquisitions when there is an open-source alternative available will be viewed as actual fiduciary irresponsibility, and rightly grounds for a shareholder lawsuit." - Eric S. Raymond
Furthering the adoption of open source software (OSS) is often seen as a natural, contagious progression as more developers and users share with others about the success of their projects. But how can an open source project even hope to compete with proprietary commercial products with massive marketing budgets and staff? Aside from not typically having large financial resources for marketing, other factors can lead enterprise users to look elsewhere for guarantees of product longevity and a robust support ecosystem around the product. Without these features, many users and businesses alike would not consider the software as an option or have a desire to become involved.
This is equally true with open source geospatial software projects which are focused on presenting freely available mapping and geographic analysis tools to the world. The Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo) seeks to address the needs mentioned above, to promote the excellent software that is available, and to provide a model where businesses can join in promotion and development. OSGeo undertook some novel approaches to encouraging new and existing support options in order to boost confidence within the business sector and ensure that project code will be publicly accessible for years to come.
In this article, we discuss the factors needed to get open source geospatial products into the hands of those users willing to test, use and eventually admire them as their favourites, or to go one step further and recommend them as a corporate solution. We examine the advantages provided by using marketing to help promote open source projects and then consider how this can boost business confidence in the use of the software. The article closes with a look at how a natural ecosystem of open source users is able to create something bigger and more consequential than each project could attain on its own.
A Herald of Success
For more than a decade, users of geospatial software have been able to turn to various open source products to help them do their work. In particular, projects such as the GRASS geographical information system (GIS) workstation product have aided analysts and researchers in the advanced analysis of geography. As the web emerged, projects such as MapServer materialized and helped analysts share their maps with the world. To this day, new and innovative open source tools continue to address the needs of analysts in a productive manner. As a result, there is a growing desire to share these advances and success stories with others who have yet to hear them.
Why does it matter that users want to see others share in their interest in a project? Often, like attracts like, and one person may share with another who would appreciate such software. As these new users become involved, they may help to identify bugs in the software, contribute to documentation of the project, provide user support, or even become contributing developers. Some will go on to develop their own consultancy business or bring tools into their existing organization.
The open source model provides several ways for keen, new users to help make the project better and many projects actively seek new involvement. In salesman talk, new users are easy customers to sell to as no cold call is required. New users encourage others. The end result is a stronger project, with an increasingly large user base and a higher profile image which attracts yet more users and builds an even stronger user base. If a project is to remain viable in the foreseeable future, it depends greatly on its ability to propagate new users and settle into new organizations.
There also exists those scenarios where a stranger using another product may never realise an alternative exists, even one that may prove more effective. The typical consumer may never communicate back to the original project team but instead silently enjoy the fruits of others' labour. For many projects, having user success stories made public to other potential users is critical to advancing its user community and showing a strong footing in the larger software landscape. This helps to inform people who might otherwise never learn about the product that has been freely and openly available to them. This open sharing of experience not only helps existing users, but encourages new ones to look further into it.
Marketing Open Source
Marketing can be a powerful tool. The proprietary sector knows this and relies on it to sell their products to those willing to pay. As large open source products emerged and developed around new or existing commercial companies, open source marketing also started to develop. With large and respectable organizations helping to support the marketing efforts of an open source product, more users hear about the product and the risk to investigate or use the product within their organization is reduced.
Open source products that are tied to particular commercial entities are both blessed and cursed. They are blessed that they have easier access to capital funding for marketing and cursed that they less easily attract new project team members because volunteers tend to give to causes that are less commercial.
These are only generalizations, but it is common sense that the open source projects that have a marketing budget or stable corporate entity behind them can market the project in many sophisticated ways. This is especially the case when the potential client is not a casual user, but rather a professional representing a larger organization with whom corporate marketing gets more traction.
The message of marketing in open source can be slightly different than in the proprietary world. For example, some campaigns may focus on the aspect of having the software be available at no cost. But in the end, adopters of a product need to know two things: that the product will run successfully in the future, and that support is available on a number of fronts. Marketing plays into both of these factors, but does not merely advertise them. The administrative and organizational strength behind the projects must be exhibited to assure longevity and to promote a healthy support ecosystem. If these are in place, projects have a much higher chance of gaining widespread enterprise usage, attracting more experienced developers, and improving their prospects for the future. Demonstrating these strengths is part of the marketing process.
This approach treats the open source project as a product, one that needs to be sold to end users. While in traditional product sales the end result is a fee paid for a license, in OSS there is no financial transaction to serve as a direct commitment. thousands of users may download and use the product on a regular basis, but there is no need to register or self identify themselves as users. In this case, the sale was successful, but there is no clear metric to account for it. Even so, potential end users still need to learn that a product exists and that it is ready to meet their challenges.
These requirements are not unique to open source. Consider the case of a new bank. It may spend millions on marketing to potential clients, but if the foundation of the building is not laid, the customers will have nowhere to go. Likewise, simply setting up a tent in a local park would fail to build the long-term confidence that is necessary in banking. Furthermore, if a potential customer would like to set up an account and the bank has no staff, then confidence would be diminished.
Addressing the organizational and marketing needs of several open source projects was a key goal when starting the OSGeo Foundation. The organization itself was created to help assure project longevity, encourage a healthy support and user ecosystem, and act as a focal point for various communities to come together for advancing common goals.
OSGeo was started in 2006 as a non-profit organization, interest having grown over a year or two prior on several fronts. There had been a general recognition that various software projects were very mature and used as stable solutions to geographic planning and mapping exercises. While competition with proprietary products was very real, the uptake of the open source solutions was steadily continuing. The question in several minds was, "How can we further advance these great products we use?" It was assumed that, eventually, members from the user and consulting community might find some way to gain exposure to some projects. What no one could expect was that a large corporate entity had been working toward releasing their proprietary product as open source. This development was the fuel to move the vision of a formal organization forward.
Autodesk, known for their Autocad design and media applications, also produces geographic information management products, including a popular web-based mapping tool, MapGuide. MapGuide was the first Autodesk product to be released as open source.
Being already familiar with existing open source geospatial projects and the community development approach, Autodesk sought to work cooperatively with these projects rather than release their product as a competitor. Several other projects had already been available for a while, but only a few had any corporate presence behind them. MapServer had been hosted by the University of Minnesota, but had extensive contributions from external companies. This meant that Autodesk was able to find companies who were already ardent developers of parts of MapServer. The existence of companies that support particular open source products helps other businesses to have confidence to investigate them further.
In finding a good way to work together, it was proposed to develop a non-profit organization to help focus on common needs and goals across many projects. All projects need technology infrastructure such as web servers, code repositories, and mailing lists. All could benefit from collaborative marketing in venues where it might not be feasible for a single project to go alone. These and other concepts brought two dozen leaders of, and contributors to, open source geospatial software together for a meeting. The outcome became OSGeo, with a board of directors well known in the industry, dozens of charter members, nine specific software projects dedicated to working together, and Autodesk as the founding sponsor. Three years later, with over 70 charter members, dozens of local chapters spread around the world, and over a dozen sponsors, OSGeo is addressing significant issues.
A Gateway For Business
There were three specific ways that the development of OSGeo lead to increased business confidence in its open source product offerings. These were:
- heightened confidence in embracing the software
- greater certainty that code contributions would be well invested
- a way to contribute financially to the open source products
There was general agreement that all projects joining OSGeo would find some benefit through increased promotion and lowered costs for their technology infrastructures. It was also well known that end-users would have increased confidence in using a product with a formal organization behind it, as opposed to an ad-hoc project management structure with, ultimately, limited accountability. This role of OSGeo is perhaps the most significant as open source tools are not always weighed solely on their functional merits. Other factors include:
- availability of support, particularly documentation
- perceived total cost of ownership
- long-term viability of the tools
Often, potential users are limited by their ability to adopt a product that does not appear to be "serious" to their upper management or decision-makers. Having a formal organization standing behind the projects provides a reinforced perspective for those to whom a trusted name is important. They can have confidence that the software project management team is not a fly-by-night operation and that their product will be available in the future. Having such confidence is paramount.
As OSGeo stands behind its software projects, it encourages further development and support, both voluntary and commercial. It is hard to imagine anyone knowingly investing programming effort in a product destined to dissolve after several months or years. System integrators and consultants who use or contribute to an open source project look for projects that will remain freely accessible and hopefully flourish. Those who contribute to open source projects do not want to see their contribution get lost or locked up in a product that they cannot use or contribute to in the future. Requiring an OSI recognized license, requiring a public code repository, and ensuring that all projects are mature and well supported before they join OSGeo are a few of the ways that OSGeo helps ensure longevity of the project and its open code nature.
Another aspect to encouraging the use of OSGeo software is by acting as a marketing department for projects that, for the most part, have no budget for marketing. Other domains of OSS have some of the same marketing difficulties as geospatial software. Advertising and face-to-face promotion is quite difficult unless you have an organized group, funding and opportunities to meet people. Much is done with an online presence, sharing information with colleagues, and in speaking opportunities at conferences. However, proprietary product marketing goes well beyond that to promote a brand and to put products in the hands of potential customers. Marketing serves to announce the viability of projects across domains and around the world, making it an important part of supporting healthy and more sustainable software development.
Some of the typical marketing activities that OSGeo undertakes include: i) purchasing booth space at tradeshow events; ii) producing material for distribution such as brochures; and iii) organizing workshops or conferences to address regional needs. These all require some sort of financial support and organization. OSGeo's major annual conference event, FOSS4G, moves around the world and is expected to draw up to 1,000 attendees this year. This opportunity gives skeptics and advocates alike the chance to hear about progress and experience hands-on workshops with the tools they are specifically interested in.
Becoming a sponsor is a significant way for a user or group to give back to projects. While OSGeo has project-specific sponsorship programmes, the main funding for OSGeo's activities is through foundation level sponsors that do not target a specific project. This in turn feeds more education and awareness of the projects, building more users and encouraging more contributors.
Previously, it was impossible for organizations and individuals to donate funds for two reasons. First, no legal entity existed to accept the funds. Second, there was no guarantee that the projects supported would survive over the long term. In some cases, sponsors may never have the ability to contribute code or staff time to OSGeo or its projects, but now they can easily provide funds to show their support in a tangible way.
Ecosystem as a Community Aggregator
There is a far-reaching social aspect to the development of OSGeo that also deserves mention. In today's economy, having a community for a product is a gold mine. Product placement has put an endless stream of consumer brands before our eyes: in fast food packaging, in the media, even on children's toys. Developing social networks around these products is ever easier using online tools, encouraging the consumption of products. The cost and planning for pursuing such campaigns must be enormous, though it can be assumed to have enough return on investment to justify continuing the practise.
OSGeo did not pursue this kind of synthetic community development as it happened quite naturally and with little or no cost. In a way, the existence of a productive social network of open source geospatial software users was an impetus to start OSGeo. The number of users of any given piece of software seemed high, but the aggregated number of users across several projects was much higher. Inviting these groups to join together under the OSGeo umbrella provided a new synergy.
Of course, bringing together disparate groups of loosely coupled software users does not guarantee long-term cohesion. OSGeo users and developers already had a high level of cohesion and this has increased over the past three years. At the most basic level, they were all working from the open source development model. Further below the surface, there were many other overlaps between user groups, developers and even code-level dependencies. Many projects were already working together or building on top of each other.
Just as OSS got a boost by having open source operating systems available, open source geospatial projects encourage each other to develop. These collaborations and dependencies do not begin and end with OSGeo. OSGeo works alongside many other open source projects as well. There are overlaps between several projects in this ecosystem but the playing field is still relatively small, at least compared to the broader open source operating systems. One expected outcome of OSGeo is that by working closely together, there will be more focus on improving existing software rather than starting new projects that overlap others.
By starting an organization where several projects and their members can interact toward common goals, OSGeo tapped into an existing cohesive network of users, developers and organizations. The net effect is that business, research, education, government and more are members of the OSGeo ecosystem. The ecosystem has helped to bring these groups closer together to support one another and to seek new ways of working together.
One simple example that shows the cross-pollination of technologies and businesses that support them is found in the OSGeo Service Providers directory. This directory allows potential users to find support in their region, their language, or for the specific type of software they use. In many cases, the directory shows service providers supporting several different software packages across various geographies and languages, thus supporting the concept of a healthy, diverse, ecosystem. This directory also gives organizations an opportunity to submit their information and make their name known.
Coupling the development of a social ecosystem with the general goals of providing stability, marketing, and shared resources has helped make OSGeo an open source development success story. It brings together code, users and funding in a way that encourages further growth of solid products in an increasingly competitive business environment.
Removing barriers and finding common goals has helped to move forward not just geospatial technologies, but open source products in general. This provides more options to global organizations, helping them to avoid the risks of proprietary lock-in and black-box business services.