People are laughing at me. For the past few weeks, they have been whispering as I walk by: “There he goes! That’s him!” as they chuckle to themselves.
Not because I wear outdated Hawaiian shirts; it’s because I predicted open source software would go mainstream in 2009.
Not many technology pundits agree with me. In fact, they don’t even bother to argue; they just point and laugh.
The fact is that people don’t believe the open source movement will get its act together. For the average consumer, open source offerings are too hard to install, even harder to use, and tough to synchronise with everything else happening on your computer.
Despite this, Shuttleworth hammered a compelling stake in the ground recently when he said: Ubuntu will be “delivering a user experience that can compete with Apple in two years”.
Realistic or not, his point is absolutely critical. If the open source community can get their usability right, people will flock to open source like white South Africans to a Leon Schuster movie.
The problem is that open source needs to gain traction beyond the murky minds of geeks and into the hearts of the common man.
How then, will this transition take place?
Here’s my 10 cents: The open source movement needs to switch from being a “Starfish” to being a “Spider”.
Nudge your browser towards the brilliant, yet somewhat underrated ‘The Starfish and the Spider‘ by Brafman and Beckstrom. It reveals the reasoning behind why open source is so strong, even with its small market share.
The logic goes like this: If you pull the legs off a spider, it dies. If you pull the legs off a starfish, not only does it grow new legs, but the dismembered limbs grow entirely new starfish.
The book draws the comparison between starfish and Enterprise 2.0, and predicts a new kind of corporation: leaderless organisations that thrive in a cluttered marketplace, knocking over incumbents and mowing down monopolies.
The open source movement is currently very much a starfish movement.
It’s like al-Qaeda taking on George Bush. You kill off one cell, and another springs up in its place. Faceless shadows working tirelessly around the planet around a single cause. In the case of open source; that cause is free software.
Even hardened cynics will admit there is certain romanticism about all of this, however, if you scratch below the surface of the open source movement (and most ‘starfish’ organisations, to be honest), it’s a mess.
There’s no cohesion and no consistency.
And that’s the problem with starfish. You leave them to their own devices; and they grow out of control. In order for a starfish organisation to succeed, and to move out the margins of the marketplace, it needs to take on some of the qualities of a spider.
Let me use Shuttleworth’s example of Apple to make my point more pertinent.
The reason why Apple’s User Interface is so successful is that there was one man at the helm, steering the ship and guiding it towards its user-centred destination. Through sheer force of will, Steve Jobs ensured that Apple’s UI did not veer from its objective of quality, design and ease-of-use.
Jobs, the ultimate brand builder, introduced consistent vision to a multi-faceted organisation, and ensured that all the various components of Apple adhered to his vision of a stunning user experience.
And here’s my point: Open source needs someone like Jobs to step up – a person who is a combination of a business visionary and a marketing magician.
You may be thinking that this rubs against the definition of ‘open source’ since the very strength of open source relies on the leadership of many, but I don’t think so.
And so, going back to my hypothesis that 2009 will be the year that open source comes to the fore. Obviously now, there is a sub-prediction that 2009 will also see a hero rise among us; someone who is embodied with tireless dedication to making open source software a consistent, seamless experience (and, in case you’re wondering, it’s not Shuttleworth himself, since, by his own admission, he’s not a marketing man).
Now you know the reason why I’m the laughing stock of the internet community right now. If you’ve got a heart, and you’re reading this… and you have the personality, charisma and brains of a Steve Jobs, please give Mark Shuttleworth a call.