Last week we held an onsite retreat for Socialtext using the open space method (think barcamp, more on that later). One of the sessions was on our open source strategy, where I suggested a primary business goal: leverage open source to strike a balance between freedom and profit motive.
To this point, last week I drew upon history:
At the end of John Markoff's book on the birth of the PC era, he juxtaposed the freedom to share sought by Hobbyists vs. the profit motive of Microsoft as the defining conflict. As that era comes to a close, a compromise has been found in commercial open source.
The balance comes relatively easy because of overlapping preferences for freedom and profit motive. Freedom taps into social incentives for production, which in turn, can decrease cost and foster innovation. Profit motive left to it's own devices generates social costs, which harms profit over time. Maybe there is some sense to this model.
There are other forces against striking this balance. Jonas Luster pointed out that: Proprietary software sells promises. Open source sells facts. Guess that's what conversations are for. Because in the longer run, promises unfulfilled hurt profit. This is what I really enjoy about running a commercial open source company, gaining a new stakeholder -- community.
Some social software companies wrestle with how to contend with the very community they seek to foster. At first blush, cases like the MT backlash or devaluation of My Space seem like reasons to discount community. Even though it's the reason for value in the first place. Being beholden to a community may limit your options, but options gained far outweigh those lost.
When I was the officer of a public company, you had a community to keep you in check. It was largely at a distance, however, relying on price alone as a signal. What I find today is a diversification benefit of interests with community as a constituency -- which provides the right incentives as long as the balance is struck.