Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Openness, opensource, lock in, the downfall of authority

In the last couple of days a few related ideas came floating by. It started when Madame was bemoaning behavior in her profession (she is a University lecturer). Then I got to thinking about Open Source - at the behest of a customer. This led down the path of no longer being able to dictate because you are the authority.
You might wonder where this is going, so let me elaborate.
In school there is a certain amount of concern that the students are tweeting, surfing the net, multitasking, getting dates on Facebook or something like that. The gut reaction of the authoritarians is to find a way to punish the students. Of course in some ways the lecturers have the ultimate authority - dropping a grade - but that is patently unfair. Madame, of course, came up with the practical observation - make the classes interesting enough and they won't be distracted. That does require effort on the part of the lecturer though.
And now to open source. There is a fear that making something open will lower the switching cost and therefore customers will leave. So, the argument goes, increase the lock in by a proprietary method and tie the customers down. The Madame principal, of course, is to provide enough value so that the customers won't want to switch. That of course also requires effort.
We have much anecdotal evidence that lock-in of any sort is despised - sometimes in the software world a reason not to buy. In the current times, where education has become dialog, where software acquisition i also a dialog, we must be prepared to engage directly as equals and not assume positions of authority "because it always worked that way."
There are few excellent companies that actually can get away (at least for a while) with their authoritarian (aka my way or the highway) stance. That happens when the perceived value of the item is so great that the proprietary nature is irrelevant (Apple anyone?), but the advantage can erode quickly when another competitor enters the market (even if that competitor is no more open). The spat in the pricing model between Amazon and Apple comes to mind here. It just took MacMillan to have an alternative and to stand up to the lock in through monopoly bully and the market fractures.


Etienne said...

Another good example: Sun-Oracle merger. Glassfish (aka Sun App Server), a free (and kick-ass I might add) JEE application server, will no longer be considered an enterprise platform. It will be relegated to developers and hobbyists. I assume before being abandoned altogether.

Customers like us will not shell out more money for WebLogic. They can barely afford Oracle licenses to begin with. They'll probably just make minor changes to their apps and architecture and call M$, IBM, or switch to JBoss or Tomcat.

Ken Sipe said...

I love the analogy... it works. The one exception is in the title, "the downfall of authority"... there isn't a downfall. The Mac's dictionary (I use it partly in humor to your apple comment... which comment I agree with btw) 3rd definition: :the power to influence others, esp. because of one's commanding manner or one's recognized knowledge about something"

that power to influence isn't destroyed. It has just moved and the rules have changed. old school you could demand obedience... usually by using a stick. The new way is to influence with the carrot. Old school can be affective, but runs the usually risk of animosity and lack of respect, which leads to a lack of authority eventually... people move on as soon as they can. The new approach using a carrot requires more energy, but it results in loyalty and respect.

playing off the cathedral vs bazaar article from Eric... perhaps you mean that the "downfall of authority" is the collapse of the cathedral... I would suggest that bazaar creates a number of authorities... an easy example would be Linus Torvalds.

Regardless... nice post!

Anonymous said...

The university situation is somewhat misleading, because a student has the direct right to follow or not follow an authority, whereas in enterprises the right to follow or not follow is delegated to the decider by someone in the food chain path who's a higher up, so a decider may have to adopt a limited spectrum view that's visible to the higher up, even tho' a wider spectrum view may be available to the decider directly. Nature of such delegation has a conventional character, but what is the convention often depends on the specific organizational or national culture, so one has to look at the norms prevailing to know what sort of delegation to the decider is in force. Selling and supporting when the client is embedded in a chain of authority can be very different from the same to an fully empowered decider.