Growing the Open Source Organism|
by Sam Williams
September 29, 1999
When science fiction author Vernor Vinge posed the concept of "intelligence amplification" in his 1993 online essay "The Singularity," he was looking for a way to describe the Internet as both communication device and reasoning tool.
Vinge wasn't talking about artificial intelligence, mind you. The Internet, with its shockingly complex mixture of software and hardware systems, was as much a testament to the scalable brainpower of its human caretakers as to the technology linking them together. Given enough brains, wires and silicon, Vinge wondered, what level of intelligence could this scalability reach?
"The best analogy I can see is with the evolutionary past," Vinge wrote. "We are entering a regime as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the lower animals."
Suffice it to say, Bob Weiner, co-founder of the open source startup BeOpen.com, never read the works of Vernor Vinge. Yet as a former developer of X Windows, the free software behind most Unix-based and Linux-based graphic user interface programs, Weiner knows what its like to watch his work come crawling out of the Internet petri dish. That's why when it comes time to describe his company's role in the evolving open source universe, Weiner has to go back a few billion years to find the closest historical parallel.
"The way I see it, the nucleus has finally come together," says Weiner, pointing to both the Linux operating system and the Internet infrastructure that shaped it. "All that's missing is a way to take the remaining porridge of open source technologies, just like that porridge of organic material that originally covered the earth and shape them into some sort of living entity."
Needless to say, Weiner sees BeOpen.com playing a major role in that next evolutionary step.
Officially, Weiner says BeOpen's business goal is to become the "leading community-based portal" for open source developers and users alike. Unofficially, however, he sees the BeOpen.com and the www.beopen.com website as a catalyst, a central switching point linking corporate dollars with projects beyond the GNU/Linux infrastructure, a process Weiner colorfully refers to as "growing the organism."
"We think the operating-system space is covered pretty well," Weiner says. "Let's move on to the next generation: applications, groupware, platform integration tools."
BeOpen isn't alone in this ambition, of course. Earlier this summer, two similar projects, SourceXchange and Cosource.com unveiled business plans designed to pair open source developers with corporations willing to pay for specialized development.
Mike Balma, strategic alliance manager for open source solutions at Hewlett Packard, a company that sponsors SourceXchange and has been in talks with BeOpen.com, says the BeOpen.com strategy, from what he has seen, is more enterprise-oriented than its pre-existing counterparts.
"I think there's room to play," Balma says. "When you're dealing with open source from an enterprise-level, you need somebody with a team of folks that can pull things together, building bigger projects than can run over the long term. That's what [BeOpen.com] seems to be offering."
As of yet, the startup has no brand-name presence, no major partnerships and no major venture financing--the BeOpen.com management team doesn't provide too many specifics on developments in those arenas.
Weiner says he would love to see BeOpen.com serve as a conduit for corporations looking to offload their R&D dollars into enterprise-class projects such as KDE and XML. He also envisions soliciting the same kind of minimal-strings-attached investment that businesses provide to universities, only in this case, the university learning environment is provided by the entire open source community.
At the same time, however, Weiner also sees BeOpen.com playing its own development and support role, building and managing open source projects according to the demands of the enterprise community. And finally, there's the portal play, a key element in the company's obligatory "community-building" Web focus.
"We have multiple revenue streams," says company Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Randy Finfrock. "One revenue stream shoots off the Web site--unique visitors and sponsors. Another one comes from banner advertisements. The stream that I think will be the strength and the underpinning of the company, though, is the service revenues stream."
Hadar Pedhazur, general partner with Verticality Investment Group LLC, a New Jersey-based venture capital firm behind open source companies such as Digital Creations and XML Solutions, has looked over the BeOpen.com business plan. He considers it solid, despite the somewhat broad focus.
"I think they have a strong vision," Pedhazur says. "With the right kind of tools and the right kind of community building, they have a good chance at success."
Earlier this week, BeOpen.com took its first community-building step, acquiring the Linux-oriented development Web site www.linuxdev.net. Weiner says the site will add about 10,000 monthly visitors to BeOpen.com's traffic levels--a far cry from VA Linux Systems, owner of www.linux.com and Andover.net, owner of both the Slashdot and Freshmeat Web sites, but a first step nonetheless.
"That'll give us something to show to the development community while we spend time building up the enterprise partnerships," Weiner says.
Reverting back to biology, Weiner says his company's half portal, half PBS pledge drive approach is in line with the current direction of open source evolution. Rather than partner with an existing portal, BeOpen.com must first create its own critical mass by stimulating both corporate and developer interest.
"When you're growing from the cell level, your end goal isn't to become an organ," Weiner says. "Your end goal is to build the body that connects the organs and eventually becomes a human with this wide range of capabilities."
Starting with individual productivity applications and working up the scale to groupware and platform integration tools, the steps for building the multicellular organism are obvious, Weiner says. The trick is connecting the money and resources with the brainpower that can generate such second- and third-order development efforts.
Although Weiner says it will be a while before open source developers can compete with the SAPs and PeopleSofts, companies need to step forward to provide an overall means for communication. When that final inflection point is crossed, look out. Things could suddenly get very interesting.
"Communities get built through partnerships and people working together," Weiner says. "We're here to help the community reach that next level and be what it can be."