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.