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Software as Performance Art

Novell Cool Solutions: Feature
By Matt Asay

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Posted: 5 Jan 2004
 

Matt Asay
I happened to be listening to Moby ("Southside") the other day, and for some reason, the song conflated with the words of a professor and mentor of mine, Larry Lessig. Not sure why the two should connect in my brain, but what I was left with was performance art.

Performance art?

You know, the cutting-edge-by-definition art form where art is not static, but performed. It lasts as long as the performance. So, maybe it's a naked man cutting beets in front of a brick wall (to represent the plight of third-world countries without access to microcredit????) But whatever it is, it's there and then gone, lasting only as long as the artist remains on her "stage."

Instead of starting with a monolithic product that you pay too much for and immediately customize to discard a large percentage of the functionality, open source allows you to build from a foundation to create a highly customized solution to whatever business problems you may be experiencing.

Music, of course, can be reduced to a tangible medium, and Moby has several albums where he has done precisely this. But Moby, live, is very different from Moby on CD. Both iterations pull together Moby's interesting use of guitar riffs, synthesizers, and drum beats (Moby's intellectual property, as it were), along with his samplings from the works of various other artists. Moby live, however, does this and more, because Moby live may choose to present the music in any way necessary to flow with the energy of the audience. (Not too dissimilar from The Smashing Pumpkins' occasional use of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to alter the mood of its concerts, before crashing into a rendition of "Disarm" or "Tonight."

Larry is a big proponent of free and open source software. As one of his students, I used to debate with him whether open source software would succeed on a large scale, because (I argued) corporations would lack necessary incentives to innovate code, and corporations were necessary to take open source to the next level.

Over time, my views on open source software, and its susceptibility to profitability, have slowly evolved. I'm starting to believe that the software world will fundamentally change over the next few years, as software becomes a service, rather than an off-the-shelf product.

I envision business models in the not-too-distant future where a hacker will be kept on retainer (much as an attorney is), paid to create and maintain a customized solution. Where a customer will say, "I need my IT to do this, and will pay you $3-100 million/year to make it happen."

Of course, software as a product has largely been a fallacy, at least at the enterprise level. Just try and find a large enterprise that uses packaged software (CRM, ERP, etc.) without moderate to significant customization. Your search will be in vain.

Open source extends this phenomenon one step further. Instead of starting with a monolithic product that you pay too much for and immediately customize to discard a large percentage of the functionality, open source allows you to build from a foundation to create a highly customized solution to whatever business problems you may be experiencing.

The question is, who will build that solution for you? All but Microsoft are clamoring for this opportunity, and for a large enterprise, it's probably best to go with Novell (or another large shop with significant experience supporting the enterprise) to provide this service. For smaller customers, the wonderful thing about open source is that there's (literally) no end of options for whom you'll contract with to build out a customized solution. Even here, though, I'd personally stick with a Novell-SUSE combination, because SUSE has shown a commitment to continue shipping supported retail products, whereas their primary competition has not. This trend will continue with Novell, where we know from two decades of experience that you can't strand customers.

And this is where performance art comes in. Not only does open source software invite the creativity of a global developer community, simply for the joy and reputation stemming from writing good code, but open source also provides a way for these same developers to get paid for their performance. I envision business models in the not-too-distant future where a hacker will be kept on retainer (much as an attorney is), paid to create and maintain a customized solution. Where a customer will say, "I need my IT to do this, and will pay you $3-100 million/year to make it happen."

Software is changing. Novell is changing with this trend toward open source and open systems. What won't change is the commitment to the customer that Novell has demonstrated over the past two decades. So, while software may become "squishy," in that it will be an ever-evolving solution, customers won't lose the premium support and cutting-edge software they've come to expect from Novell.

Matt Asay
Director, Linux Business Office & Open Source Review Board
Novell


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