I went to OSCON this week and gave a little talk there. I try not to be cynical, but I have to say that I was disappointed in the level of discourse at the conference sessions, and it got me thinking that things in the valley and in our industry in general are starting to feel a lot like they did last time around.
When you start to think about it, it's pretty easy to see what's happening in software right now as absurd. I mean think about it: we're calling it Web 2.0 for crying out loud. Doesn't anyone remember what happened with Web 1.0? It's like Groundhog Day.
Of course, there are differences between the last go-round and this one. The Web 2.0 way to make money from an unprofitable business is through acquisition. Last time it was IPO, but really we've just replaced the stock-buying public who-should-know-better with large companies which should know better.
Take the Open Source thing, which was the ostensible topic of this conference. There was a lot of shouting (literally — like hypey shouting — like "and it doesn't suck!" shouting) about Open Source making the world a better place and connecting people who otherwise wouldn't. A bit of a digression here, but I'm increasingly convinced that the long-tail community stuff — small groups of fringe users who share a common interest — is actually about a single group of users: the same flock of professionals whose main pursuit seems to be going to these conferences to talk with each other about the same stuff, who then go home and write about the same topics and link to each other's blogs. All the microcontent dinners and specialized social networks really have a single meta-topic which is 90% of their focus: the coolness of microcontent and social networks and how all of that is enabled by Web 2.0.
Anyway, it's hard not to see some substantial part of this Open Source stuff as just straight up marketing. "Deepbo, the innovative social networking site that lets its users identify and review plants by combining Google maps, Flickr and the USGS Botanical Survey is pleased to announce boDeepPX: a set of Python bindings bindings for searching RDF trees implemented in Haskell." I'm grumpy, but I feel I've earned it. Most of the code out there is simply no good, and any one who's been at this for any amount of time knows to be real suspicious of a tarball that was uploaded to a webserver last week.
So this is my argument: the popularity of Open Source is a Web 1.0 style fad that makes no sense when you look closely at it. I was hoping that I would hear some thoughtful commentary at OSCON about the difficulties in balancing business needs against those of an Open Source project or what it takes to get Open Source code to take root in the community at large. But most of the talk I heard was about Open Source as a social movement. Call me a dinosaur, but I'm in business to make money. That's how this game works, and I think that sensible developers should be suspicious of any Open Source project that doesn't have at least a few maintainers with a vested and sustainable interest in its success.
Laszlo, for instance, is still (two years later) working through exactly how our long-term business plans need to change to accommodate the radical shift from proprietary server license to Open Source platform. We're doing fine as a business for now, but we're still working through our schemes for the kind of rapid growth that software investors expect. I was candid about this in my OSCON talk, which could have otherwise been just a marketing product pitch. It still strikes me as kind of crazy that Laszlo the business invested a lot of time and money in having a major presence at a conference like OSCON. People would come by the booth and we'd demo and pitch our little hearts out and they would say: "that's really cool! and this is totally free? I can just go download this thing and use it and do whatever I want and ship it and I don't owe you a dime or even a link?" And we of course would nod enthusiastically, but that's crazy right? We're killing ourselves to give this stuff away!
I should add here that for Laszlo and for a few other businesses, it makes a lot of sense to build a business around an Open Source project. Not only does the market now basically demand it, but it's an interesting and forward-looking way of getting infrastructure adopted that can support a company's long-term goals. But there was not much of that kind of talk at OSCON. One way of viewing Open Source is that it has been effectively forced on the software development community by its customers, and that we're all still trying to figure exactly what this means for our businesses. But that's a far cry from the smug, this-is-how-we-do-it attitude that totally dominates the discussion these days.
Don't lose sight of this simple fact: Google, Web 2.0 poster child, has yet to monetize any product other than AdWords. Now, AdWords continues to kick ass, so Google can do what it wants in the short term, but I think us industry types forget that most of the innovative Web 2.0 technology has been made profitable only to its inventors. The acquirers of most of the beconsonanted Web 2.0 successes have yet to monetize or even really integrate these acquisitions. I recently read that Facebook got an estimated half-billion dollar valuation. How can that possibly be right? We're back to eyeballs, and I guess I would think it was funny if I were laughing my way to the bank. The fact that all of these companies have ridiculous names is just a further affront to my dignity.
Of course, there is something to this Open Source stuff, just as there's something real going on with Web 2.0. I just wish we could have a more mature discussion about it and separate the marketing bullshit from the real drivers. There were some good aspects of the conference of course. I missed most of the sessions that interested me, but there were a few that at least sounded like they had actual content. Also, a nice surprise was that several people stopped by our booth to show us cool apps they had built with OpenLaszlo.
Portland seems like a great city, and I hadn't been there before, so I guess the conference also had that going for it. Tim O'Reilly introduced me to the phrase "metasyntactic variable", which I hadn't heard before, but I suppose that just shows how little I know. Maybe I'll be wrong, and each of these sites will turn into small but profitable businesses that each maintain a valuable Open Source project, but it seems just as likely that it'll be another case of so long and thanks for all the t-shirts.