On Free, Open Source and VRM

Open source is pretty standard practice these days – whether on the desktop (OpenOffice), on the server (MySQL), in the enterprise (WSo2), even tools like CRM are now available open source in some flavour or another. There are two types of people who are interested in open source.

A. Open source is interesting because it’s open. The philosophy behind this one is that “given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow” a la http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_S._Raymond.

B. Open source is interesting because it’s free to use. The philosophy here is, duh, why spend money when I can have something for free?

Open source, because it’s open, is great for learning, great for practising and great for demonstrating your chops to your peers and to potential employers.

Open source, because it’s free to use, lets companies build more stuff better and faster and cheaper with open source tools than they would have been able to without. If you want you can even pay for your open source (even if only via add-on services for enterprise support).

There’s a big difference. And I suspect that for most people the free aspect of open source is more important than the open aspect.

Open Source and Free
Open Source and Free

For example I’ve been giving VRM a lot of thought recently (see post in my other blog in which I was put right on some assumptions by Doc Searls and Graham Sadd), and I’ve been interested in some of the debates (e.g here and here) about the role of open source in VRM.

On the one hand is a train of thought that goes something like “this needs to become commercial to be successful”. On the other hand is a train of thought that goes something like “the open source community is our best bet to solve something as massive as this.”

And then of course there are plenty of comments along the lines of “it is both commercial and open source”.

But open source as relates to VRM – is it really that important? Adriana Lukas’s MINE! project is open source but does it need to be editable by anyone (open)? Or does it need to be freely distributable to anyone (free)?

Of course the use of free software elements will be invaluable in building effective VRM, just as with building any software these days. But open source doesn’t need to be part of the philosophy of the movement itself. Identi.ca is open source. Twitter is not. But there are plenty of ways of getting at the data in Twitter in third party applications.

It’s at the data layer that I think the open-ness debate needs to happen. The importance with VRM is in a user controlling their own data and communicating that data easily to potential vendors, under the user’s terms. The code that enables this to happen is of secondary importance. And will probably come from a whole host of small, different pieces. Some parts may be open source, but other parts may be proprietary (but with good APIs). Perhaps I’m trivialising things but I wonder whether with VRM the secret of success is “open data” rather than “open source”?