I was invited to speak at Sun a few weeks ago. They've started a new program to bring in outside luminaries to offer differing perspectives on topics important to Sun in an effort to avoid inside-the-beltway thinking (or, put more floridly, to avoid breathing their own exhaust). I was their first speaker in the program and something of a guinea pig.
I had the opportunity to have lunch with Simon Phipps, Sun's open source point man, before the presentation. During our discussion, he noted that one of the major challenges for Sun's open source-forward strategy is that many existing customers are uncomfortable using software that does not require a licensing fee, even with an explanation that Sun is happy to take money from them, just that the fee is for support services.
Phipps went on to say that one of the main reasons prospects and customers are uncomfortable with this open source approach is that it fails to align with their expectations of how software is obtained. They're so accustomed to the bid/procurement process accompanied by the stereotypical sales rep proffering half-truths about the product that they literally feel anxious when offered the gift of free software. Furthermore, they're so used to an adversarial relationship with sales reps that they are bewildered about how to respond to a sales approach that is more collaborative and focused on user satisfaction, which is, of course, a prerequisite when what you sell is support. Support only becomes important when you are committed to the product and feel it meets your requirements; in this environment, a sales person has to be focused on how happy the customer is, since no money flows until the product performs well enough to be put into production.
Left unsaid by Phipps was how Sun is adjusting to this new world of offering software with no strings attached, only an invitation to call Sun for a support contract once the system is ready to go into production.
My talk was attended by a variety of Sun employees: engineering, marketing, field sales engineers, and a smattering of others. From my observation, I would say that a number of them are grappling with how to interact with customers on this new basis. This is particularly true of people in software pre-sales. In an environment of try – and implement – before you buy, free pre-sales is an anachronism, not to mention economically unsustainable. Pre-sales needs to morph into something different, something more consultative, perhaps even a chargeable service – but carrying on in a role of attempting to bridge the divide between a sales rep's promises and a customer's needs doesn't make sense going forward.
More intriguing in Phipps's observation regarding the procurement mentality is the challenge its represents to customers. If you're used to buying in a certain way and your suppliers no longer choose to participate in that process, well, you've got some adjusting to do as well.
Many enterprises seeem to operate in a vendor-centric model: they select a vendor and from then on rely on the vendor to define when new technologies should be adopted, when new releases should be rolled out, even what complementary technologies should be implemented. It's obvious that this causes middle-of-the-pack performance, lock-in, and lack of pricing power. Without rehashing all of those arguments, consider the other implication of this approach: it fosters dependence -- an inability to self-direct in technology direction, custom architecture, and unique business offerings. If all you can offer is off the standard menu, you will never serve up differentiation.
Nevertheless, once you've gone down this road and adjusted all your processes to align with it, it's challenging -- or even frightening -- to embrace self-sufficiency in technology direction. It's not enough to hire smart developers, you have to modify our way of doing business, which is far harder.