Open Source

What a Pixar open source project says about your software strategy

Still hiding your code? Don't. You need developers, and they demand open source.

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Image: iStockphoto/StockRocket

The clearest sign that "software is eating the world" is the rush by companies both in and out of tech to open source their code. Recently the following headlines hit my inbox:

Everything, it would seem, is open to open source, including presidential candidates. As to the question posed in the first headline, the answer to "Why open source?" is always "Because developers." Hence, in a world increasingly dependent on developers, enterprises need to get serious about open source, or figure out a good attorney to handle their bankruptcy proceedings.

Developers, developers, developers!

While the importance of developers has been an open secret for some time, the manner in which companies engage them has changed. Gone are the days when a wacky dance and an array of impressive developer tools could be considered sufficient. Microsoft took that strategy and turned it into multiple billion-dollar businesses, but today's environment requires more than tools.

Today requires open source.

SEE Why every developer is an open source developer now

In discussing why Pixar was open sourcing its Universal Scene Description (USD) technology, which aids filmmakers to work with 3D scene data, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, declared: "We believe that being open with our technology and sharing it with our peers in the industry is how we can best continue to drive innovation."

Sure, but drive innovation for whom? After all, this technology is core to Pixar's technology strategy and, hence, its business. Why would the company gift its secret sauce to competitors?

Pixar offered a big clue in its press release announcing the open sourcing of USD, when it mentioned: "The open-source Alembic project brought standardization of cached geometry interchange to the VFX industry" and that "USD hopes to build on Alembic's success, taking the next step of standardizing the 'algebra' by which assets are aggregated and refined in-context." Pixar benefited from Alembic, but arguably Lucasfilm and Sony Pictures, which jointly created the Alembic project in 2011, benefited more.

Why? Because they were able to rally developers to their standard, freeing up resources to innovate in other areas. Pixar hopes to do the same with USD.

You need more developers

Even if the de facto standardization effort fails, Pixar wins, because it sends a signal to developer recruits and existing employees that it's a great place for them to build code. Developers don't want their best work hidden behind a proprietary license. They want to work with the best people employed by their organization and with those outside their firewall.

Which brings me to my last point: Whatever kind of enterprise you run, you need more developers.

SEE The one way you can make your company run more like Facebook

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst clearly knows the value of selling services around open source, having shepherded his company to over $2 billion in annual revenue. But as he stressed, the real open source innovation is happening elsewhere. "As technology matures, we should expect the majority of IT innovation is going to come out of users, not vendors," Whitehurst said.

Unlike vendors, who jealously guard their code so that they can license it, organizations like Pixar and The State of California have different motivations, leading them to treat software very differently, as Whitehurst called out: "The vast majority of that user-driven innovation is put out in open source."

Such open source is a signal to developers that an employer is developer-friendly, and it also allows companies to collaborate on code even as they compete for box office market share, automobile customers, etc. Whatever your organization, in short, you need more developers, which means you also need more open source. A lot more.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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