Thursday, January 28, 2010

What is "Open"?

I am a huge advocate of open source software, and now that I am CTO at an open textbook company, I am pondering the question "What is open?". Let me use the moniker "open product" for covering open source software and open textbooks (and if anyone has a better term, please let me know!).

Some criteria for an open product:-
1) A version of product available at no cost
2) A company developing an open product needs a revenue stream to support product development (in what manner those revenues are derived can vary widely)
3) Product needs to be remixable (in technology parlance, "mashable"), allowing for an even better product or use of product

As an open source expert once told me, "without revenue, there is no open source". I believe this applies to all open products.

Many, many products meet the above criteria for "open", let me pick a few:-
- Linux
- Google search
- Flat World Knowledge open textbooks

Not to say Flat World Knowledge open textbooks are in the same league as Linux and Google, but what's interesting is that each of these products provides different revenue streams. Redhat makes revenue by providing support to enterprise Linux users. Additionally, other companies like HP make revenue using Linux on their hardware (HP has claimed that open source software has accounted for billions in indirect, additional revenue sales). Google makes revenue selling keyword and ad placement inside their search results. Of all the open products, in my opinion Google has made the most significant revenue, and interestingly using that revenue to support other open products (i.e. Google docs, email, maps, etc.), which in turn can drive additional revenue.

At Flat World Knowledge, our revenue stream is selling print-on-demand textbooks in addition to our no cost online textbooks. We also sell additional material useful for students, including audio study guides, flash cards and quizzes.

In open source software, you get the "source code", which itself is changable and remixable (depending on creative commons licensing terms). At Flat World Knowledge, our open textbooks are "customizable" (i.e. changable) by educators who adopt our textbooks. They can move chapters and sections around, add anotations, and in the future do many other customizations with our open textbooks. It really is quite amazing how open products have really changed they way products are developed and used, with many, many more changes to come!

With new technology, the tech community at large looks for a moniker to understand and grab on for new concepts. Recent ones include "web 2.0", "cloud computing", and "NoSQL". I wonder what is the best moniker for covering open source software, open textbooks, open courseware, and other "open" things as a group? What about "open product"? I would like to hear from others if this works for the category, or if they have or have heard of better terms. Clearly, this is a space of growing interest, and we will benefit from have a term to describe this new concept wider than just open source software.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Started today at Flat World Knowledge

I started today as CTO at Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of open-source college text books (a good article describing the model here). It's very exciting to join a start-up and be in the education industry. I also like its similarities to the open source software industry.

While I've been on the corporate route since 2001, I've spent most of my career at small companies. I am really looking forward to the scrappiness and nimbleness of small. While I will be crazy busy, hoping I can regain my blogging activity.