I read two daily newspapers.
I know the world is moving away from printed media, and this admission marks me as a bit of a dinosaur – but there are all kinds of interesting parallels between the newspaper industry and the software industry. Both are undergoing tremendous change, creating havoc for some and opportunity for others.
Traditional newspapers publish content produced by their employees. Writers and journalists have degrees and credentials, even awards for quality and integrity, like the Pulitzer Prize. To the extent editors allow the unwashed masses to contribute content to their publications, they host “Letters to the Editor,” typically limited to a single page, and heavily filtered. Non-professionals can apply for longer opinion or “OpEd” pieces, but those column inches are more frequently reserved for former prime ministers or (former) world bank presidents. Simplisitically, in the world of traditional print media, >99% of the content comes from employees, less than 1% comes from the community they serve. The editor is in control.
On the other end of the spectrum, a variety of on-line media companies, exemplified by Craigslist or YouTube or Lokalisten, aggregate and organize content produced by the global community. This content is (poorly) known as “User Generated Content,” or UGC, and the companies distributing it see themselves as technology companies. Their employees don’t produce content, they develop technology to organize it and make it accessible. >99% of their content comes from the global community, and a tiny percentage comes from their employees. It’s the perfect inversion of traditional print media.
We can quibble about which is the more respectable of the two models, traditional versus new media, but there’s really no point. The market accords a far higher value to the on-line aggregation sites than print media (just think, how many venture capitalists fund newspapers?). With on-line media, there are no trucks to maintain, no 500 kilo newspaper rolls to purchase, no journalists or printers to pay. On-line media, both demographically and statistically, attracts more viewers across the world, and more viewer minutes. What was laughable a few years ago has become big business – with real profits.
How does a print media company grapple with the threat of on-line media? If they’re not acquiring new media properties, they’re attempting to add community engagement to the on-line analogs of their printed publications (eg, opening comments on ariticles or newsfeeds). This isn’t always smooth, but rather than fight the trend, most recognize that readers find community content as or more interesting than corporate content (I, for one, find the comments on my blog far more interesting than my blog). Put simply, letters to the editor have become as valuable as the articles inspiring them.
Now, traditional media could certainly take another tack. They could sue the new/technology media companies, claim they’re stealing readers by violating patents held by traditional media. Imagine, “We patented text in columns! Classified ads in boxes! Captions on pictures! Headlines in large type!” But they’d be suing the community – the moral equivalent of suing subscribers – stepping over the line of editor, into the role of censor. And censoring free media is a particularly awkward plea for those that believe in freedom of the press. Few have sued. Most, but not all, have evolved, through competition, acquisition, reorganization or rebirth. Those that failed to adapt have deservedly perished.
What does this have to do with the software industry?
The software industry is going through exactly the same transition. Seven years ago, StarOffice and Solaris, to take a couple examples of key products at Sun, were built by our own employees. The source code to both was available under restrictive licenses, but our (equivalently Pulitzer Prize winning) engineers wrote 100% of the code. With very limited input from the community. We listened to users (and their letters to the editor), certainly, but we didn’t allow them to touch the code (or lay out the front page). We were in control.
And then our biggest competitor became, in the late 1990’s, a product built by a company that aggregated and organized software from the open source community. They built little of their own, they relied on the software equivalent of community content, or Free and Open Source Software.
Could we have sued them? Sure. Sun has what I’d argue to be the single most valuable and focused patent portfolio on the web (and yes, we’d use it to defend Red Hat and Ubuntu, both). But suing the open source community would’ve been tantamount to a newspaper suing the authors of their letters to the editor. We would’ve been attempting to censor rather than embrace a free press. It might have felt good at the time, but it wouldn’t have addressed the broader challenge – community content was becoming more interesting to our customers than our professional content.
What have we done since then? We dropped the price to free on both products, made the code available as Free software, and got busy engaging rather than fighting the open source community. Rather than diminishing revenue, this singular action amplifiied Sun’s business opportunities – not everywhere, but among those that see downtime as more expensive than a service subscription (another word we share with traditional media). Want proof? – take a peek at this mashup, click “Blank” in the upper right hand corner to hide the satellite map, and ask yourself if Sun could possibly have fueled adoption at that global scale without embracing Free software (the answer is a definitive, “no”). And whether those that downloaded might be interested in everything else we build (the answer is “yes”).
But more than Solaris, one product in particular has capitvated consumers across the world – OpenOffice, which you can download by clicking this button:
I’ve been across the planet for Sun, and everywhere I go, I see OpenOffice growing in adoption. It’s built, evangelized and localized by a massive community – it runs government agencies in Brazil, banks in India, high schools and universities across North America and Europe. We’re making huge progress across China. OO.o is in call centers and hospitals and legislatures and elementary schools, and localized globally, it exists in more languages than its (only) major competitor. It’s driven competition into a market which historically had none – and it’s created an opportunity for the world to standardize on an open, royalty and patent free file format for exchanging documents. Most recently in Norway, and eventually everywhere that believes in a free press.
OpenOffice has embraced user generated content, and is now largely a derivative of community contribution – how has it benefited Sun? Beyond engaging the world with Sun’s brand (I recently interviewed a new hire at Sun, who said he didn’t know Sun well, but he’d written two master’s theses in OpenOffice – and saw the logo every day for years), it’s benefited our customers, opened historically closed markets, made productivity affordable to millions around the world – and thus grown the market for Sun and others. Decreasing the cost of productivity by $500 a user has had a huge impact in the developing world (and among developing companies). Free software has no pirates.
And yes, I’m well aware that we have a long ways to go to return SUNW to its heights, and to get revenue and earnings growing more aggressively. But the best way for us to do so is to embrace community content, not litigate against it. Those that resist the transition to free media are valuing their patent portfolios more highly than their customers. And that’s not Sun’s business model.
And again, if you’re a public school teacher in Beijing, a university professor in Sao Paolo, an engineer in Warsaw, a researcher in Antarctica, a student in Nigeria, an entrepreneur in Pune, a banker in Singapore or a developer in Norway – or a journalist that cares about a free press – I invite you to add your voice, here.