Software

How open source should transform your product development strategy

Open source is Red Hat's way of seeing the future of its products. Could it be yours?

It's a bit surprising that no one else seems to be following Red Hat's lead. For a company that pulled in a very profitable $3 billion in its last fiscal year, and is on track to top $5 billion, Red Hat does a lot of things right. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is how it does product development.

As Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has said: "Five years ago we didn't know the technologies we'd be using today, and we don't know what will be big in five years time." That's true of all companies. What's different for Red Hat, however, is how the company works with open source communities to invent the future.

Seeing the future...one GitHub repo at a time

Think about it: For most companies, product development is something of a guessing game. If you're Apple, of course, you eschew focus groups and other ways to determine what customers want, and instead build what you believe they'll want. As Apple founder Steve Jobs once said, "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

But you're not Apple.

Indeed, most companies mix intuition and user research to try to settle on products that will sell, with varying levels of success. Very few companies manage to hit it big more than once, product-wise, suggesting that a process that worked well once might well fail them the second (or third) time around.

SEE: Software licensing policy (Tech Pro Research)

Red Hat's process is different.

From Red Hat Enterprise Linux to OpenShift to JBoss, Red Hat builds its products around successful open source projects. That is, Red Hat doesn't need to figure out what the market wants—it already knows, based on open source adoption of a Linux (RHEL) or Kubernetes (OpenShift). While Red Hat must still turn this project popularity into product sales, it gets a massive head start over competitors that are stuck field-testing product ideas.

Of course, this model doesn't work for everything, because open source hasn't proved itself to be a great fit for all areas of software. Infrastructure and middleware? Yep. Applications? Not so much. But for those areas where it fits, it's a great way of seeing the future.

Can you pull a Red Hat?

The question remains, of course, as to whether it's a great way for your company to see the future. As mentioned, it's not a fit for some areas of software. In those areas where it is, open source should be a key part of all product development, even if it's not the product you're selling. Choosing popular projects to comprise parts of a larger product is smart strategy—why build on a moribund project when you can capture the momentum of a more popular project?

SEE: IT pro's guide to working smarter with Linux (Tech Pro Research)

For companies hoping to hatch their own open source projects and turn it into a product, this is a good way to test the waters on its eventual success. If you can't get anyone to download your project for free, it's a reasonable indicator that no one will want to pay for the product based on it, either.

While this model of product development may simply be too foreign for most companies, it's an approach that more should explore.

Also see

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Image: iStockphoto/scyther5

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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