Is Open Source a closed book to business?

It was great to hear Robert Cailliau talk at Media Futures 2008 as part of a panel discussion on openness and innovation.

Cailliau is an ex-employee of CERN and worked with Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the inception of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s.

Here is his take on the use of open source:

  • At that time [when we were creating the web] there were many different people thinking about this idea [the web] and ours was the one that took off. If we’d locked it up [ie: not used open source], those other people would have got in on the act.
  • I likened [the development] to a field of weeds rather than a strong forest. Because of the diversity [of people involved], it wasn’t possible to pick out the good contributions. After a short while you began to see who was competent and who was not competent.
  • A hierarchy of ideas and of people began to develop. This became the Consortium (in 1995) and the Consortium was a way of getting the web standards in place and of keeping them open.
  • How do you actually pay for your open systems? This is a problem. I saw a number of people who were very enthusiastic but then lost interest and became involved in something else. And you lost their ideas. Because there was no rigourous authoritarian structure to keep them.
  • We need a way in which people can make anonymous payments and end this vicious triangle of author/reader/advertiser.

I asked Robert and the rest of the panel how they thought we could encourage businesses in general to use open source – not so much for software (where the case is proven) but for completely different products and services, the Goldcorp Mining example used by Don Tapscott, for instance?

Mark Birkbect (webBackplane): The open source ideas of trust and openness will work in business – but the business mindset is set against that. I believe businesses will open up eventually.

Ian Forrester (BBC Backstage): Read The Cluetrain Manifesto and also Reading The Cluetrain, the blog of Sarah Mines, a marketing woman at the BBC (who I convinced to write a blog about her changing perceptions as she read it).

Matt Webb (Schultz & Webb): The web is in danger of becoming polarised – on the one hand we’ve got people believing in freedom at all costs and on the other there are people who want to close everything down.

Robert: I’ve nothing to add.

Well it was late in the day and I guess everyone had their eye on tea and cake, but I was saddened I didn’t get the chance to corner Robert afterwards and press him on this!