Over the past few weeks I have been giving a series of workshops and talks for Impact Hub, Kings Cross. This collaborative, shared workspace is a member of the international Impact Hub Association and populated by smart and sustainable social businesses. Their members are entrepreneurs and freelancers who make regular use of in-the-cloud Software as a Service tools like SurveyMonkey, MailChimp and others. The workshop I gave focused on WordPress and HTML skills training, yet a discussion of Software as a Service tools developed and brought with it a renewal of some most deeply treasured ideals.
It may not be obvious why, but I consider WordPress as belonging to these Software as a Service offerings. I’m sure you are familiar with it as a free and open source blogging tool, and to many small business owners it is also an essential piece of their communications and relationship management strategy. Modern business requires good customer service, sales require brand awareness and marketing campaigns need mass distribution – all of which have significant social networking components these days. It’s hard to look like a modern business without one.
If you look to see how it is deployed you can see a blurring of WordPress’s open source project status with that of a commercial business concern, in line with the way SaaS offerings are delivered. WordPress and similarly Drupal offer themselves as hosted service options on WordPress.com and Acquia.com. Each routinely restrict their functionality and the extensibility of their parent open source projects, but each too offer the low-overhead and savings of an in-the-cloud IT solution. Then, as centrally hosted business applications, they rightly deserve to be considered Software as a Service and often become the starting point of a small business’s online migration.
Business tools delivered through the World Wide Web are nothing new. Where there is a market for these services, a business case for them can be made. The SaaS case can be made quite strongly – it opens up IT to many companies who otherwise may not afford it. The additional benefit of being a commute-killing, low carbon-footprint option for the sustainable-minded start-ups makes such technologies appear harbingers of a new age of business. And it would be foolish to think that companies will go out and learn to develop code in addition to a customer base, advertising channels and working processes so we can be sure that use of these tools will grow.
The story of the Internet’s arrival is also the story of the open source software movement’s greatest success. As you probably know, the movement’s aim has been to offer universal access to software’s source code without prejudice to its use, modification or redistribution. It has proven that the development of new software can be a collaborative and distributed process, saving time, money, and the duplication of effort, all the while educating and informing a broader public of the technology’s mechanisms. Treating users as co-developers has worked, and still works brilliantly. In the web’s case, it has been the single most important way for all the innovation to get in, as innovation does, through edge-cases and by riding on the backs of Black Swans. And it is that self same flexibility and capacity to concurrently include multiple agendas which has allowed our open source projects to grow.
We could not have possibly done it without them. Just to download open source software is to receive some practical training in the way your computer or server works. A simplified and passive education it may be, many games developers have nonetheless emerged from the modding scene to create studios and their own titles and many more HTML developers have emerged from personal page creation to become the heads of development organizations all in the short space of a decade.
So if throwing away the more defensive and protective ideologies in our own industry has been for the best – from the draining of the Waterfall to sharing the secrets of our sauce – would it not do some good in others? True, there are many challenges beyond the coordination and control of corporate infrastructure, and open source has become a moniker of social movement and change akin to transparency there. But in the practical software application space, open source’s home turf, it is disseminating itself in the form of SaaS offerings to eager, needy alternative minded startups missing its most vital of components. To me, this appears to abuse the success of our flexibility and growth, short-changing a customer we should far more strongly support. It strikes me as perverse that we are giving such a bad representation of ourselves.
And the sad truth is that they can’t even notice it. The open source story is somewhat counter-intuitive and poorly communicated outside of our industry; you wouldn’t guess what I have been discussing here and there exist few analogies to it in everyday life. Pop quiz: which scene in The Social Network is filled with product placement for the open source project Mark Zuckerburg used to germinate the Facebook mega-corp? You can’t remember can you…? (spoiler: there wasn’t one!) Sustainable, social businesses and free and open source software sectors should, in my mind, have recognized far more common ground by now. They should have collaborated on many great, customized workflow products and flexible business managers but they haven’t. It worries me that any further flexibility or capacity to act in the current tools will be hard to come by.
Sustainable small business industry wants great tools, and, I think, we all need great, sustainable small businesses. We could be champions of their ideals – something I was astonished not to be already, and as I finished my workshops I left with new questions: How should we progress to re-tool an alternative to the corporate world? And what would an open sourcing of business be like?
Ben Greenaway has been a software developer for 18 years. After pioneering internet narrowcasting in the 90’s in collaboration with Virtual Futures he has led development on A/V installation projects for Pixar and Sony Entertainment and web applications for SMEs in Southern California before moving to the San Francisco Bay in 2010 and developing performance solutions for Dyn DNS and e-commerce APIs for Tzolkin TZO. He now lives in South London where he balances time writing and developing with the demands of an ever growing collection of retro computers.