by Bernard Golden

Notes from the Catalyst Conference Part 2

Jun 21, 2006 3 mins

I had the opportunity to speak to many attendees at the Catalyst Conference last week (see Part 1 of my take on the conference here). As I mentioned in that post, they work at large, mainstream companies: Pfizer, Hartford Insurance, and Cargill, to name just a few.

Time and again, when I shared with them my involvement with open source software, I got the exact same response: “I understand open source is good, but we need one throat to choke.” It’s striking that they all used the identical phrase — it’s almost like they’re programmed to respond with this objection. For them, there’s an assumption that open source can’t provide support equivalent to what they get from their proprietary vendors.

One thing is clear, just from their phraseology: the expected relationship with a vendor is adversarial. When I’d ask people I was speaking with about how good their vendor support actually is, I mostly got grimaces. It’s obvious there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the typical customer/supplier interaction. So, the comment about wanting one throat to choke is ironic — people are complaining that open source doesn’t provide the same level of inadequate support that proprietary vendors deliver!

I think the concern about open source support is more a reflection of not having any experience with it. Certainly some aspects of it are different than the traditional support relationships organizations are used to.

However, different is not the same as worse. (In fact, it was the quality of community support that first opened my eyes to the potential of open source; perhaps I can describe that situation in a future post). Certainly any organization should at least explore the issue of open source with some real world experience rather than just assuming it is inadequate.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Community support (that is, support from other product users as well as the development team, delivered via email lists and forums) must work pretty well, considering how many organizations rely on it. Why not assess it instead of rejecting it out of hand?

  • If you still feel that community support won’t work for you, many open source products have one or more companies that offer commercial support arrangements. They provide “one throat to choke,” for those who prefer that kind of arrangement.
  • Finally, of course, you have the option of supporting yourself, since you have access to the source code of the product. While this probably isn’t a realistic option for most organizations, given their desire to focus on implementing, not creating, software, it is available. In any case, it provides a fallback for companies that isn’t possible with traditional proprietary software. I’ve lived through the “oh, yes, that bug is fixed — it’s in the next version”: translation, mandatory upgrade if you want your problem solved. Worse, of course, is, “that’s a bug, but we aren’t planning to address it in the near future.” Admit it — you’ve lived through this kind of thing as well.

If you’ve read my series of posts on “Why your future depends on open source,” you’ll know that using open source isn’t an if, it’s a when. It’s fascinating to hear these objections to using open source; one can’t help but get a sense of Fin de Siecle for  the established software order.