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Until recently, the words “open source” near an enterprise CIO were likely to be a conversation-ending phrase. Open source development frameworks and innovation practices seem almost antithetical to complex compliance rules, red tape and internal barriers that constrain most corporate innovators.

Yet, the last few years have seen a softening of that view with corporate IT departments and innovation labs. While many corporations may struggle to embrace lean startup and emerging technologies, executives have also realized the need to move quickly and adopt new technologies to avoid disruption from more nimble competitors – and that means being open to open source.

What Is Open Source Innovation?

Technologists often quote sci-fi author William Gibson who said “The future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” to highlight the fact that innovation and progress often get locked into small groups or the walled gardens of tech leaders. Open source software and technology helps increase the pace of innovation by opening software platforms to collaboration, growth and the free exchange of ideas.

Open source software has been commonplace in the development world since the 1980s. Trends like Big Data, cloud computing and evolving software languages have opened new avenues for enterprises to collaborate and incorporate ideas from outside the organization to produce better products.

Watch below as Allison Randal of the Open Source Initiative explains the mindset of many enterprise leaders and how open source technology can improve outcomes for both organizations and consumers.

Open source software and technology plays a huge role in top companies around the world; Google, Facebook, Netflix and more all promote open source projects and collaboration to drive innovation. Even Tesla has made its hardware open source to improve adoption and uncover new opportunities. For obvious reasons, many companies resist open source initiatives, fearing security, proprietary technology and customer experience will all be compromised.

While these fears can be valid, open source technologies have increased the pace of innovation to the point where companies must either adopt open source where it makes sense, or watch competitors speed past them.

Open Source in Action

It’s hard to imagine any company more dependent on and fiercely protective of its own software walled garden than Microsoft. Between Windows, Internet Explorer and its many proprietary solutions, Microsoft cultivated a reputation for requiring its own frameworks, often to the detriment of internal ventures and third-party products.

Yet in recent months, Microsoft has shocked (and delighted) developers by embracing open source platforms and opening popular software like .NET, SQL Server and more to outside influence. The result: last year, Microsoft’s SQL Server database software grew in popularity faster than any other database software in the market. By including a top open-source competitor, Linux, in its tech stack, Microsoft reopened itself to a massive market of users and made itself more useful to current customers.

And to be clear, this was something of a do-or-die moment for Microsoft and reflective of its new stance on innovation. Its top database competitor, Oracle, has provided its open source My SQL for years which has proved to be almost as popular as its flagship, proprietary systems.

The good thing about controlling your development and innovation ecosystem is that innovators should – theoretically – be able to determine the best times to work outside the enterprise garden to see what works in the field.

When Mike Burgiss of Cox Automotive began development of a new product within the company, he recognized working internally would not offer the flexibility he needed to prove the value of his idea to executives. Instead, he worked with an outside agency to build a pilot version of his software using open source and cutting-edge software languages to prove the product in the marketplace. Once he’d proven the marketplace and refined the product through testing, the product was ready to be refactored and integrated into enterprise systems.

That flexibility to experiment with open technology before bringing a proven product back into the fold is critical to successful innovation.

Re-leveling the Playing Field

Embracing open source can rebalance the disruption equation facing most enterprise companies. Agility and speed play a huge role in the success of disruptive startups, and that speed often stems from the ability to rapidly deploy products without the weight of legacy IT requirements or corporate red tape. Beyond benefiting from the expertise of a community, rather than a pool of internal developers, leveraging open source platforms also gives the enterprise an opportunity to keep one hand on the wheel of technology as it progresses. Rather than competing directly with Linux, for instance, Microsoft now benefits from a community looking to adapt Linux to Microsoft’s opening ecosystem.

Judiciously incorporating open source technologies can help innovators overcome some of the chief barriers to agility, while also bringing the full weight and scope of enterprise infrastructure behind new products. Corporate innovators still might not be able to move quite as quickly as their startup competitors, but open source technologies provide a flexible, adaptable foundation for killer products bolstered by the scope of a large organization, rather than hamstrung by it.

Choosing When To Be Open and When to Be Closed

Open source doesn’t work in every situation, and enterprise regulations and red tape exist for good reason. The scope and (occasionally slow) pace of corporate infrastructure are typically a boon for innovators – they often ensure intentional decisions, predictable performance for software and security across enterprise applications. A lack of agility within the organization may frustrate innovators and customers on occasion, but a corporate walled garden can be an incredible asset.

The decision to work openly or compete head-to-head isn’t easy, and must be made depending on the marketplace. An open source approach makes sense for Microsoft’s database solutions, but it has gone to war protecting its suite of enterprise-level Office products against open competitors. When it comes to embracing open source innovation, there are a few key things to consider:

    • Will an open source platform allow your product to steer the progression of that tech platform?
    • Does an open source technology meet your business goals and customer demands?
    • Does the open source technology meet standards of IT and customer quality?
    • Are scalability and customization key to this product’s success?
    • Are legacy systems hampering the customer experience?
    • Do we have the resources to keep proprietary systems current and stable?
  • Can we remain open and collaborate throughout development and product growth?

While corporate change-makers face real and justifiable barriers to open source innovation, it’s becoming increasingly important for innovators to find the freedom to quickly build robust products on sustainable, adaptable frameworks.

Has your business been able to successfully introduce open source systems into the enterprise?

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Geoff is a true entrepreneur. He’s passionate about helping companies find, build and grow their next big idea. He launched his first venture at age 16, when he started a computer store in a shopping mall in Sarasota, Florida. Since then, he’s built eight more companies.