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My Open Source Journey

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They say that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. But the part they don’t tell you is that the direction that first step is taken in will have a drastic impact on the path you take. That’s why I’m glad that, back in 1992, the first step in my career journey was pointed toward the Open Source community.

I became interested in the Open Source for a pretty simple reason – I could get Unix-type technology at home with Linux. The technology appealed to my curious mind. Sure, systems were a little rough at times, but for the first time I could sit down and make a piece of software do what I wanted it to do – whether it was changing a keyboard layout, configuring a modem, adding support for something new, or any other customisation. Combined with community’s white-hat appeal to my youthful idealism, I was officially hooked on Open Source. This was going to be my career.

“I was officially hooked on Open Source”

Convinced that the Open Source model – an alternative to the evil commercialisation of the software market – was the future, I shifted the focus of my own consulting company starting 1993 towards a strong focus on open source. I dug in more and became somewhat militant in my support. In fact, after about a year, I made a personal and business decision – I would only take jobs and projects involving Open Source. 

I look back at that young entrepreneur and I laud his scruples – but I cringe at his business acumen. I quickly found out that the consultancy would be a commercial disaster but I learned some important lessons about finding a sustainable way to combine idealism and money generation. Despite my early business failings, the idea of monetising Open Source projects in a fair way stuck with me, and it remains a part of my DNA today.

The idea of monetising open source projects has always been subject to debate within the community, and after a while I began to realise something that has since crystallised and become one of my core beliefs today: business and the Open Source community need each other. I understand the view point of the side saying any commercialisation is bad and destroys the spirit of open source– but I wholeheartedly disagree with it.

Open Source is a fantastic tool to rally people around the common good, inspiring millions to do something for the simple reason that it’s the right thing to do. And while some dislike the idea of contributing for the benefit of a company – the understanding of how community development should work has become so strong, that anybody can easily identify and weed out any individual or organisation with nefarious or selfish intentions and simply spend his or her time somewhere else. No harm done, and this choice is a good thing as it provides a level of self-regulation on the players in an Open Source community. Yet it is only with the participation of corporations that the Open Source community can fulfil its potential.

Companies have the coffers to become community benefactors, providing the resources that individuals, no matter how well-intentioned, simply cannot (with very rare exceptions). As long as they are adopting a model that does not encroach on the value of the efforts donated by community members, companies have the ability to deliver tremendous and lasting value to the Open Source community. We’ve seen time and again that there are enough projects and companies out there doing the right thing so a balance gets struck. Projects are furthered, knowledge is advanced, organisations profit and jobs matching Open Source contributor skill sets are created: a true win-win for all involved, with the possible exception of the staunch ideologue group that long ago counted me as a member.

It was with this delicate ecosystem in mind that I decided that I wanted to throw my full support and entrepreneurial spirit behind an enterprise-driven Open Source project. I came across ownCloud, a quickly-growing community with developer appeal and traction being guided by the steady hand of Frank Karlitschek, an Open Source pioneer I am proud to now call a business partner. It was 2011, and the ownCloud project’s momentum and its location-independent architecture combined with the emerging need in the market for data privacy and security in an increasingly cloud-based world convinced me that this was the opportunity I’d been looking for.

We began working together, and it’s been a remarkable success to date with the Open Source community powering a scalable and sticky solution that’s seeing growing enterprise traction every year. While our dedicated team has helped advance Open Source universal file access and collaboration to the benefit of millions of ownCloud project users across the globe, the open source community has delivered tremendous value to our enterprise customers as well.

a community numbering in the millions ensures that the user experience will remain top notcH

Building a business on the back of a successful Open Source project has brought our company – and its users – some real advantages. First and foremost, the speed of innovation is simply faster. Thanks to the contributions from the Open Source community, ownCloud has cultivated an ecosystem with thousands of developers problem solving and fine-tuning to make sure every bug is ironed out. At the same time, a community numbering in the millions ensures that the user experience will remain top notch – we know that our users won’t settle for anything but the best, and have the power to simply leave if it can be found elsewhere.

Perhaps the clearest advantage, however, has been the built-in user base and cache associated with a globally popular project. Thousands of start-ups have built a better widget, but failed because they lack the awareness to gain market traction or because potential customers were not willing to take a leap of faith as an early adopter. By working with a proven project, our team has been able to eliminate those massive barriers to start-up success, enabling us to start quickly and continue to grow.

A lot has changed in the Open Source world since I first discovered it almost 25 years ago. But at its core, it remains very similar. It’s a vibrant community laser-focused on collaboration and the advancement of a common cause. As it’s grown and evolved, I’m thrilled to see that the community has set aside a seat at the table for like-minded businesses, including mine. As our team continues to work with the Open Source community to further the ownCloud project, I look forward to seeing what’s in store for the next 25 years.