Tuesday, March 15, 2005

What Software Developers and Lawyers Have in Common

From my colleague Randy Wambold...

Recently I attended a panel assembled by an organization that CHEN PR sponsors called the Massachusetts Interactive Technology Exchange (MITX), titled, "Open Source - Is It Ready For Primetime?"

Many a two-hour technology panel that I've attended passed by about as quickly as a Friday before a week of vacation, but I found this panel quite engaging.

Attempting to define "open source" guarantees failure, but for the purposes of this blog entry, a working definition is in order. For succinctness and plain language, I like the definition on SearchEnterpriseLinux.com: "Open source software (OSS) refers to software that is developed, tested, or improved through public collaboration and distributed with the idea that the [source code] must be shared with others, ensuring an open future collaboration."

The piquant panelists managed to cover an impressive range of topics in two hours related to the issue of the open source... well, what to call it? That's part of what the panelists discussed. Open source is part latest technology trend, part philosophical movement, and part legal conundrum. In fact, regarding the legal implication, one of the panelists quipped that a few years ago, a lawyer was the last person you'd expect to find in a room with a bunch of software developers. Now, thanks to open source's profound implications on patent and intellectual property law, s/he is among the first.

In fact it was a good two hours not to be a lawyer, as the profession came in for its fair amount of criticism. Kudos to lawyer and panelist Devin Smith who handled the ribbing with good humor.

Yours truly raised the question to the panelists of how open source might change as it moves from "pure" philosophical movement to commercialization as vendors appropriate it for profit. Underlying my question is my anecdotal observation at the rapidity with which the very term "open source" has gone from the strict domain of the wildly passionate, highly technical software developer to mainstream business language. I used to hear the term only in discussions with my clients who fit the passionate/technical profile, but now it seems I can't open a business publication without reading it as well.

The consensus seemed to be that on the one hand it doesn't have to be an either/or as my question implies; there is a sense in which open source can continue to be both a technology credo and a for-profit business strategy. On the other hand, panelists didn't doubt that a few years down the road this progression will have a practical impact.

I left the panel a more informed man, with two lasting impressions: 1) In whatever form, open source is here to stay and its impact on business and technology is only beginning to play out and 2) I'm glad I decided against law school.

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