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.


Charles Barone said...

Revenue stream is usually means "advertising" if the content is otherwise free. People may support a project, but usually for their own enrichment. These people are historically advertisers.

Google is obviously in the forefront. It's forte is advertising. Isn't that it's revenue stream?

But no one makes a dime without content. Content is king, because content draws eyes and ears.

In "open source" world "open source" content is king only to people interested in working on "open source" projects, i.e. "geeks" in the very best sense of the word. But in the case of the "open books project" the geek may be called the "contributor", writer, or researcher.

It's important to understand revenue stream, but it's more important to make revenue stream. Seems some people just have a knack

shoptalk said...

My apologies, John. After about 20 minutes of investigation I finally came to realize that you actually have to "buy" a book. So that is your revenue stream. Don't take this to heart, but reading your blog first and coming to the site last made me think you we're touting a "collaborative" textbook effort i.e. Wikipedia. "Open source" doesn't really describe what you are doing, does it? Looks like "source open to author for quick revision at any time" is more like it. That and "customizable formats for the purchaser." Do I have this right?

Jon Williams said...

Collaborative textbook efforts immediately online are on our roadmap, but not available today. The customizable format is mainly targeted to Educators/Professors (but not restricted to just them), and we propagate changes to students both free online and for purchase. You can say today, "source open to educator for revision at any time", with future ideas to widen that. Hope this explains it.

Anonymous said...

Jon do you think it is realistic to think that you may be able to provide potential textbook buyers an opportunity to download an audio version of the textbook? Not a manual or an interactive CD-ROM but rather a way to simply listen to someone read the textbook to me. What are your thoughts?

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