China and open source geopolitical strategy: Simon Wardley weighs in

Commentary: China is increasingly playing the long game on open source, says strategist Simon Wardley.

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Image: BirgitKorber, Getty Images/iStockphoto

In tech circles, most people know Simon Wardley's for his maps, a tool for mapping the components of a business and, by extension, to help organizations plot their strategy. While Wardley is good at general strategy (and does it for a living), he's particularly deep in open source strategy, where he has spent a sizeable percentage of his career. As such, when Wardley goes off on open source strategy, as he recently did on Twitter, it's worth tuning in. 

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Open source as a weapon

"Open approaches can be used to deliberately change markets in certain directions. It's an extremely powerful system if used correctly," wrote Wardley. That "powerful system" is not, as some erroneously believe, a way to get free labor working on your code. That's an old myth about open source, but it's just that--a myth. Or, as Wardley put it, "That's just blathering execs going 'open' probably because they read it in some equally mindless HBR / McKinsey / business school report."

SEE: China is the biggest obstacle to US AI advancement, half of CEOs say (TechRepublic)

Instead, Wardley noted, an organization that wants to make good use of open source must be "all in" on open source: Investment, desire, reasoning. This isn't to suggest that meeting these conditions will necessarily result in an open source success. Despite all the effort, Wardley went on, it's really "more opening doors for others to walk through. You have to manufacture conditions and constraints for the project to succeed."

Take, for example, Kubernetes. I've written about Kubernetes' community success for years, but that success didn't come for free. Google had to open up the project's governance to outsiders, allowing Red Hat and more lately, VMware, to contribute in significant ways. This is one reason that Wardley warned that open source breeds "Lots of frustration...and it won't happen quickly if it is going to be sustainable." It's relatively cheap for a single company to launch a project and mostly use it for marketing window dressing; but to be truly sustainable, a project needs diverse inputs to fund it (with cash) and fuel it (with code). 

Google also chose to license Kubernetes under the permissive Apache 2.0 license, which encourages developers to freely use it and contribute to it. In addition, Google (and other contributors) have invested significantly in marketing the project. Even with all this effort, Kubernetes could have failed. There are no guarantees.

Thinking long-term about open source

Not that Wardley would approve of my use of Kubernetes as an example. In his way of thinking, Kubernetes is no more the future than OpenStack was. Wardley, an admirer of things like serverless, believes the future takes time, and likely more time than most Western companies seem capable of focusing: "[The] most common sort of response is the Oracle approach of appearing after the war is finished to declare you're going to win the war (which is already over) with some paltry amount of future investment. It's farcical. You need longer term strategic players. Think China, not US."

In China, Wardley argues, there is a long-term desire to win, and open source plays an ever-increasing role in this. The reasons, according to Lisa Caywood, are as much about self-defense as offense: "It's first order defensive from the Chinese standpoint, and then about making sure they can integrate effectively w/the rest of the world's tech infrastructure."

Is it game over, China wins? Of course not. But smart companies (and countries) will increasingly use open source to drive long-term value, according to Wardley, which also requires long-term investment. Using open source as a marketing gimmick may offer immediate benefits, but it doesn't deliver the long-term, competitive advantage Wardley points to.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but nothing herein is related to my work there.

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