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Talking Open Source with John Powell, Alfresco CEO

A word of warning: «talking Open Source» here means talking about the business model, the pros, the cons, the competitors, the parters and the developers, and even some parts of the roadmap, but not the code or the Alfresco application itself. At this week’s Alfresco Community Conference in Barcelona there was a lot of other interesting people, not least Alfresco’s John Newton, Ian Howells, Kevin Cochrane, David Caruana and Nancy Garrity… and I had to go and interview John Powell about the business side of things.

And I’m very happy I did. And very thankful for the answers. So here goes the transcript.

Miguel Cornejo. You’ve been three years now with an Open Source business model, running a company radically different from what you were used to. What would be your takeaway?

John Powell. By and large, the Open Source business model makes all aspects of a software company’s easier because, without having to hide your intellectual property, you can get the great ideas from anyone who has an opinion on that, across the globe, to help you in the development, the QA [Quality Assurance]… and the propagation of your product. So from that aspect, it makes everything really really easy.

The challenge of the Open Source model, for a commercial Open Source company, is to keep the balance right between the community and the subscribing customer. Because really, the subcribing customer will only subscribe if he sees value, and there will always be people in the community who will never subscribe. And we have to get the balance right because without the subscribing customers there would be no company and the community would then lose the major engine for the development of Alfresco.

MC. The role of that engine is one of the most interesting parts I’d like to talk with you about. So you see… John Newton said yesterday that about 10% of current Alfresco code comes from the community.

JP. Yes.

MC. But what part of… you also mentioned that the leading edge is where innovation comes from. So what part of the value, the added value beyond the document management core [of Alfresco] comes from the community?

JP. I think what they do is they give us insights into a lot of the practical applications. As anyone who uses software would know, when you get software delivered from a software vendor, you often have a «Why did they even think I would work that way?» moment, with the interface or the workflow or whatever… so I think what the community does for us is it gives us much better feedback than you can ever achieve with the closed source products. That is, they can get to grips with not only product but also code, and extend that and show you concrete examples.

MC. So you then do «as the community directs» [quote from his talk earlier in the day].

JP. Yes.

MC. This leads to another question about what is the motivation of these developers, because some of them are developing that excellent new user interface you are working on without ayone paying them, without budget let’s say.

JP. Yes.

MC. So how do you involve people up to that level?

JP. Any Open Source project relies predominantly on people with an interest, perhaps doing something in their part-time or down-time, as like a bit of research, on anything useful, that often gets taken up. So for example some of the stuff we saw today. Because those guys employed by partners of Alfresco, they’re doing some interesting things but they’re also improving their knowledge that they’re then able to demonstrate to their customers in their market, that they actually are experts, they have added value. So…

MC. It would be a sort of «proof of competence»?

JP. Yes. So I would say, it’s a bit like… you see, what’s the value of going to the gymnasium to your job? Well, probably if you’re more awake, if you’re sharper, if you’re fitter, it’s going to improve your aptitude at work. At the very least, these community developers may improve their skills, they make themselves more marketable, and a few of them come up with really great stuff than can then feed back into the whole community.

MC. What’s the role of such proprietary software vendors such as Quark or SAP next to Alfresco [both are differently involved in deals with the company]?

JP. From Alfresco-the-company’s perspective, there is an important role to work with those types of organization, because for many of large customers, they demonstrate that Alfresco is a long-term player and here to stay, and when they see other large companies, particularly from the proprietary world, commiting to Alfresco technology and getting into bed with Alfresco, it gives them a good reassurance. From Alfresco’s perspective, we want to work with those companies because we acknowledge that they have huge user bases and by working of them, if only a small proportion of their user base becomes interested in Alfresco, it’s obviously a good thing for Alfresco in the long term.

MC. Yes. About the new 3.0 release focused more in the user end… it seems to me you’re keeping stable the document management back end where you manage the heavy metal, and now you allow people to customize more the user end of things… I feel your real competitor, rather than Sharepoint, would be FileNet or Documentum.

JP. Yes. Well, I think what we’re seeing is that with version 3.0 what we’re actually doing is we’re adding a social computing application to Alfresco. So Alfresco’s platform framework will still be there, to build large-scale document repositories, to have large-scale web content management, or internet-scale www sites. [Version 3.0] doesn’t remove anything from that, what it does is add a social computing application into the heart of the environment, and that is I think one of the key differentiators that we have to Sharepoint. Because Sharepoint cannont go into the www world and they haven’t got the enterprise scalability to tackle the large scale document libraries.

So from our perspective, the version 3.0 is all about leveling the playing field and giving customers the potential to jump into Alfresco the same way they’re jumping into Sharepoint. But the benefit of Alfresco is, once they jump in, then they can go in any of those other directions, whereas with Sharepoint they will be very very limited and constrained, and obviously through lack of choice they will be tied into a Microsoft stack in the future.

MC. Indeed. I was going to ask you further about Sharepoint, which as you say is very much limited, but I’m afraid we have very little time [Here a kind bystander asked to be allowed to listen in to the discussion]. As I was saying, what would be your key differentiators, beyond the social layer that’s new, against the current document management application model, like FileNet and Documentum?

JP. I think the key differentiator here is that we’re coming from the Open Source world, in that there will be much more capability to extend and participate in the customization and support with Alfresco that with Documentum or FileNet. Now, those systems will still have an application, and there’s probably many many hundreds of man years of development in those, but for most customers… they’re not that interested in that legacy, what they’re looking for is a modern architecture that they can take forward.

MC. So that would be [with] the flexibility and the ability to take them the way they want? Which wouldn’t happen in a proprietary or «legacy» system?

JP. That’s right.

MC. Very good. Now then, jumping a bit to a different subject, you are Open Source but you are not following the, let’s call it «classical», community model. It’s a company-led Open Source effort. This means… what?

There is evidently some kind of direction, some kind of leadership or vision, that you’ve been providing, not just coding in-house. Because even if the community does some part of the code, you do provide a lot of things to that effort. So you’re Open Source, but with a different model…

JP. Yes. Well, in fact I think we have the advantage that we got to learn from another great companies that pioneered another great communities, that pioneered the Open Source model. And I think that if you look at today, you’ll see people like SugarCRM, Alfresco, mySQL…

MC. … OpenBravo… [Based in Pamplona, sort of friends of the house]

JP. OpenBravo, yes, I know these guys. You’ll see that actually, there are some differences in our model, but you’ll see the model is tending to come out in a very similar direction. A company that employs probably 90% of the core developers, and really commits to the maintenance and support of that product through the future.

MC. So you see that as a viable long term model for the future?

JP. I think there still be some great true, hmm…

MC. … «community-driven»?

JP. … community driven projects, yes, but I think in some particular areas, particularly where the persistence of data is very very important to a company, then this marriage of a commercial company culture with Open Source, is the ideal solution.

MC. Absolutely [ ].

JP. You know, any company, at some point in time, they like another company to do business with, and it’s quite hard to satisfy that when it’s a difuse community of developers. Now, for some applications that may not be about the persistence of core company data… We’ve heard here presentations from customers who are looking to keep content for a thousand years. You know, a thousand years is way beyond the imagination of, I don’t care what anyone says, of any computer system today [ ]. But you know, I think a hybrid model in effect, where we’re trying to bring the best of both worlds, a commercial, contractual-based organization where customers can feel secure in that, with the support of a vibrant community to avoid the risk for the customer of the old vendor lock-in proposition. Alfresco cannot hijack its community.

MC. Perfect. Now, another jump in the subject… As you get into web 2.0 and collaboration for this community layer that you’re working in right now, I’ve seen you’ve been very interested in things like the Facebook integration but until today I saw no mention of a forum component, a bulletin board system…

JP. OK. We need to do more on that. But it’s always been an area where we’ve said, we don’t want to be inventing all of the ways of consuming and generating content, so we don’t write a wiki, we don’t write a blog… We want to integrate those capabilities. But what we’ve been building so far is really the plumbing to do that. And I think what we need to do now is get more examples of where we’ve actually surfaced those… If you look at the Alfresco website, the wiki that we use, which is MediaWiki, is embedded inside Alfresco, so the content is versioned and managed inside Alfresco.

MC. And the users and skins are too? That’s what I was looking forward to see on the bulletin board side. I still believe most of the unstructured information is not handled in documents, but in informal conversations… so if you can’t handle that, you can’t handle the company’s knowledge.

JP. Right.

MC. So you’re working on that, we can say?

JP. Yes.

MC. Then… that would be more or less all I wanted to ask.

JP. OK. Thank you.

MC. Thanks a lot.

Another cautionary note: as soon as Mr Powell’s had a chance to have a look at the transcript, it will be corrected of any mistakes he finds. So enjoy them while you can.



  1. Pingback: Modelos de negocio Open Source: conversación con John Powell, CEO de Alfresco « eme ká eme - abril 27, 2008

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