Stuff Michael Meeks is doing

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Marketing in Vendor Neutral FLOSS Projects #2

This continues a series of items on Vendor Neutral FLOSS projects and how they do marketing which you can read here.

The shape of our ecosystem - what is sold ?

In order to understand how we can best shape the ecosystem to drive LibreOffice’s success – it is helpful to understand first what products and services companies currently sell, and then consider how we want to shape the environment that they adapt to to encourage behaviors that we want.

Consultancy / Professional Services

Perhaps the most obvious contribution to LibreOffice is that of consultancy. A user has a problem, a budget, finds someone to fix it for them, contracts with them to address this issue, and then to contribute this back to LibreOffice.

A consultancy model at first glance appears to fit well with FLOSS development, and indeed there are several successful FLOSS consultancies in the market (of which Collabora is one). However there are a number of significant problems with the consultancy business model:

The above timeline is reasonably accurate for a government procurement cycle, although these can be distended by framework tendering, followed by separate individual contract tendering – as well as extended validation periods (‘A’). Interestingly, this is not dissimilar to TDF’s own contracting cycle. It also omits a common “Try to get it done for free by filing up-stream without a corporate address” latency of some months.

For these and other reasons (it already being quite exciting enough to hire, motivate and manage creative developers) - many consultancies desire a product based business, where a product is sold and paid for in advance. This gives the luxury of a considered and deliberate view of improving the product in partnership with a customer over a horizon of years, blended of course with some bespoke development as/when necessary.

On the plus side, some consulting relationships are more like a product relationship with a committed and predictable volume of work, and staffing over a long duration. These however are rather rare and special.

Product – with Product Management & Long term support

For many of the reasons outlined, TDF has traditionally left space for the ecosystem to provide the (relatively tedious) job of providing Long Term Supported versions. This frees the volunteer community up to focus on developing new feature, and also creates a scarcity. Distributors then meet provide a solution for this scarcity by selling access to branded versions of LTS support and manintenance services – with various licensing, often on a per-seat basis. This money can then be re-invested into product development.

Selling a product (such as an LTS version) provides the ability to sell a branded bundle of software and services, with a Service Level Agreement (SLA). It allows an open source company to aggregate the pre-payments of many customers, solicit their input on the product, and prioritize investing into relevant areas for them. Critically products are usually pre-purchased up-front for a duration of small integer multiples of years. As such a degree of stability, and strategic planning can enter the product development process. In addition – the consultant’s dream of doing the same work to serve multiple customers concurrently can finally be realized:

Long term support with product mangement

Supported product / Level 3 (code-fix) SLA

An elaboration on providing a generic supported product is to provide an SLA for fixing customer bugs – this can be used as a special case of the above to contrast vs. the consultancy approach. It allows you to having specific problems addressed to your timeline:

SLA for fixing customer code-fix bugs

Proprietary extensions / Open Core

Some companies sell a LibreOffice augmented with proprietary extensions in an open-core type model. These companies can then re-invest that revenue, however the temptation and incentive is always to invest substantially in improving the proprietary pieces and not into the open core: since doing so provides the highest Return On Investment (ROI). While this model may improve awareness of LibreOffice as an option it does little to improve LibreOffice itself. It has been tried extensively by IBM, Sun, RedFlag and a number of other players past and present - without notable success. The open core approach tends to focus the community's work on duplicating the proprietary pieces - and is not a behavior we want to encourage in our ecosystem.

Why companies (and individuals invest)

Having explained the ways that FLOSS friendly companies build and sell products and services around the LibreOffice ecosystem – it is perhaps useful to consider why companies (or individuals) invest in anything. This might be thought obvious, but in a world where the evils of “Profits” are called out combined in the same breath as calls for more “Investment” perhaps this is a helpful thing to consider.

Why people invest in anything really

All of us when putting money into a bank consider the interest rate provided. We are interested[sic] in getting more money back than we put in, and even with low rates – you expect to get your money back, plus something. Investing in LibreOffice (or any vendor neutral project) however is a substantially riskier proposition – the easy part is paying developers to implement cool new features. The hard part is seeing your original money back – nevermind any extra return (profit) to re-invest.

Clearly TDF is interested in having many vendors invest into LibreOffice – so we need to have well thought through answers ahead of time on how that results in a return. That return has to be larger than what went in, those who lose money (path B) will after time simply not invest any more: to do otherwise would be the definition of madness (or an altruism we can’t expect in a normal business). The upper feedback loop via path ‘A’ has a doubly virtuous appeal. Having got their money back, with some additional compensation for the risk, it is likely that this money will be re-invested and encourage further additional investment with it – in expectation of future returns. The ideal is that this leads to a virtuous circle of significant and growing investment into LibreOffice and other vendor neutral projects - something we want to see.

As a footnote – with existing rather marginal returns – questions such as “Why are you not investing in my great idea for LibreOffice?” often seem to be based on some mis-apprehensions about the balance between A. and B. and companies ability to re-investment into their product.

Anyhow – next time we will look at the magic linkage between the easy bit: investing into LibreOffice, the hard bit: making some money back symbolized by the green arrows above.

to be continued ...

To make this more digestible following sections will be serialized later, and built up into a reference-able whole here: https://people.gnome.org/~michael/data/vendor-neutral-marketing.html adding more flesh to the problem space


My content in this blog and associated images / data under images/ and data/ directories are (usually) created by me and (unless obviously labelled otherwise) are licensed under the public domain, and/or if that doesn't float your boat a CC0 license. I encourage linking back (of course) to help people decide for themselves, in context, in the battle for ideas, and I love fixes / improvements / corrections by private mail.

In case it's not painfully obvious: the reflections reflected here are my own; mine, all mine ! and don't reflect the views of Collabora, SUSE, Novell, The Document Foundation, Spaghetti Hurlers (International), or anyone else. It's also important to realise that I'm not in on the Swedish Conspiracy. Occasionally people ask for formal photos for conferences or fun.

Michael Meeks (michael.meeks@collabora.com)

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