Business and open source…

Ashlee Vance wrote a story in today’s (I presume it’s in the print edition too 😉 about the business world’s supposed disappointment in the shareholder value of open source based businesses.

I suppose if you ignore all of the companies listed in the article who were sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, and you squint really hard, you can see their point: investors in open source companies in aggregate haven’t made as much money as investors in proprietary software companies. Given how short the age of open source has been, that’s hardly surprising. (Given how open source is missing the boat on services-based businesses, that’s also likely to continue, but that’s another story).

Others will I’m sure criticize the article based on proposing some better metrics for success for investors in open source companies. I don’t really care — what did strike me was this sentence:

The fight illuminates a larger truth about open-source companies: their societal and strategic importance far exceeds their financial value as operating businesses.

Exactly! It’s critical to me as CEO of Mozilla Messaging that it be a healthy business. But my requirements for “health” aren’t those of wall street. They include reaching a state of making more money than we need to operate, but they also include some variation on the triple bottom line, with some additional twists related to making sure that we operate in ways that are consistent with our values.

I was recently at a business meeting where a bunch of CEOs were “networking”. It was fascinating how quickly the conversation shifted when I answered the usual question about “exit” (the polite term for: “get rich by selling the company) with “well, no, I can’t, as we’re owned by a non-profit”. After a period of shock, it turns out that even CEOs (!) are interested in a business that isn’t all about financial rewards for shareholders. It can be about much more interesting pursuits, such as building a team of people who respect each other and work together for a common goal; it can be about providing awesome customer experiences; it can be about making the world better. There are lots of companies like that. It’d be nice if the “business” section of the newspaper spent more time thinking about that and less about how people who are merely shareholders can make money through speculation.

It’s probably healthy for Wall Street to realize that what’s interesting about open source isn’t some magically cheaper way to produce goods and services. To me, what’s much more important are the complex implications like transparency, a permeable barrier between your consumers and your staff, a built-in safeguard against complacency, and ideally a much more human relationship between your organization and everyone else. I look forward to seeing what the Economist’s new Schumpeter column on business says about it, whenever they get around to it.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring how to work with business-savvy types who are interested in how to make a deeply healthy business. Based on talking to other CEOs of open source companies, I’m pretty sure that just like we can find talented programmers, quality nuts and localizers to contribute to the products, I’ll find some smart business types who will find it rewarding to contribute to the business challenges.

La Quercia

Emily and I were treated to an impressive meal yesterday — a 9-course tasting menu at La Quercia.

The full sequence:

Cocktail: La Bicicletta

Parmesan Sformato, Aged Balsamico

Frisee, Hazelnut & Apple Cider vinaigrette
Roast Quail

Vitello tonnato

Strudel ai Funghi
wild mushroom and ricotta strudel

Risotto with wild mushrooms

Agnolotti di Guido
Stuffed pasta, veal, chard, ricotta, parmigiano

Spaghetti al’amatriciana
Smoked pork cheek, chillies, san marzano tomatoes

Ruby Trout
lemon caper sauce

Collo d’Agnello Brasato
slow- braised lamb neck, beans and greens

Lemon cream

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Rice Pudding with Blueberry Sauce

with a Casalone 2004 Rus Monferato.

Almost everything was very good. The vitello tonatto was a revelation; the risotto was luscious; the chocolate cake was superb; the lemon cream inspiring. Only real complaints is it was just too much, and I don’t think we really appreciated the mains because we were full already. Apparently it’s an easier meal for larger groups, because there are a few people around who end up really, really, really hungry. Next time, I think we’ll go for either the 5-course tasting menu or just pasta & salad.

Definitely recommended, especially if someone else is paying. Reservations almost always needed apparently.

Dear ISPs

Dear ISPs,

By far the largest set of support requests that we end up seeing for Thunderbird have to do with being unable to receive or send mail. By far the largest single cause of these failures is some unilateral change by the ISP which cause previously working configurations to stop working. In other words, people come to us for help solving problems we can’t solve. It makes us feel bad, it makes you look uncaring, and it certainly doesn’t help your customers (except for those cases when we go beyond the call of duty and help them as neighbors would, guiding them through the diagnostic & fix).

In our next revisions of Thunderbird, we’ll probably work on making our error dialogs better, so that we transmit whatever wisdom we can to your users to give them a fighting chance. But we can do better for your customers, if you get involved.

Let’s figure out how to work together to provide better experiences for your customers and our users. I’m quite sure that we can come up with solutions which would save you costs compared to having your customers tie up your tech support lines only to be rebuffed by your staff who often don’t understand how email systems work. It might also help you avoid commoditization…

Here are some ideas to start the conversation going:

  • Let’s make sure that our configuration of ISP databases works for as many users as possible. We’ll likely need to evolve the format and protocol over time, but we can only do that with input (some ESPs have already joined the effort, which is great!).
  • Consider making a useful add-on that would let you inform your customers of planned service downtime, configuration changes, etc. (no marketing messages, please, or your customers will not use it).
  • If there are changes we could make in Thunderbird that would help you help your customers, let’s talk!.

Together, we can figure out how to get your customers setup with a Thunderbird that works for them, for us, and for you.

Looking forward to a productive conversation,

— David Ascher
(dascher at mozillamessaging)

Tim O’Reilly on the future web wars

I’ve tended to limit my link referrals to my Twitter feed over the last year, but I wanted to advertise Tim O’Reilly’s latest post on this channel as well (it also feels great to have more than 100 characters to express myself!).  Tim explains well what the new battlegrounds for the future of the web are.  It’s a war that’s currently being fought with shiny discounted hardware, free access to proprietary data, and competing “privileged” interfaces to the web.  The stakes are huge, but oh-so-hard for people to grasp, as much of the mechanics of who wins what depend on economics which are far removed from the battleground:

  • People don’t pay transparently for mobile services or devices
  • People don’t pay for online news (although some surveys indicate many would)
  • People often end up “subscribing” to brands (Apple, Google, Facebook) and becoming brand consumers rather than active participants in their own digital life.  That delegation of trust is often pragmatic, but it’s worrisome if unchecked by alternatives.
  • The heterogeneity of the original internet can lead to an appearance of chaos, and many people prefer simpler, more uniform experiences.  Both technical and psychological factors encourage centralization of services with single providers.  Financially as well, “small, independent startups” have huge incentives to become part of one of the big centers of mass.

Finally, the huge psychological distance between the value of free services and the costs that funds them is one of the big topics that puzzle.  It applies to “how come I can get free map directions from Google but I have to pay to get them from TomTom?” as well as “how can I convince my neighbors that electing so-and-so to office will mean more tax revenue overall, which in turn will mean better schools?”.  In both cases, the number of steps between cost and service is huge, and coupling them tighter would destroy the huge advantages that centralization and scale offer.  (If I knew more about the derivatives crash I could make some pithy reference here).

I agree with Tim that “If you don’t want a repeat of the PC era, place your bets now on open systems. Don’t wait till it’s too late.”  I think he’d also agree that we need to think beyond code and copyright.  That’s like going to war with trucks but no tanks.  For the open, distributed, heterogeneous web to thrive, we need to incorporate thinking from a host of other fields, such as contract law, design, psychology, consumer behavior, brand marketing, and more.  Figuring out how to engage thinkers and leaders in those fields is likely one of the critical, still missing steps.