Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Library Software Solutions - We need a higher level of discourse..

It seems to me, after a week or so of watching comments fly around on Twitter, Facebook, and on various blogs and press sites, that we need to raise the level of discourse between the vendors of proprietary software, those who produce open source software and the users of both, that is -- libraries. Why do I say that? As I'm sure many of you know the OLE group issued its draft final project report recently, along with a request to comment.

I took that opportunity to write a blog post conveying my concerns about where OLE was headed and how it was getting there. I posed a set of questions, based on my professional experiences, which includes proprietary only software companies, software companies with products based on both proprietary and open source and prior to Ex Libris, my own company that was focused almost exclusively on open source software. That blog post drew a pointed comment from Brad Wheeler, a participant in the OLE project.

Which caused me to stop and wonder; did the OLE group really want comments? Or just not comments from vendors of proprietary software?

If that is the case it is truly unfortunate for all of us. It reminds me of a book review in the Economist that I read this weekend. A statement in that review jumped out at me:
“They are so blinded by partisanship that they are incapable of seeing any vices in their own side or any virtues in their opponents….”
I thought about that for a moment and how broadly it applies to our lives today, from politics (conservative vs. liberal) through the media (FOX vs. CNN) and to computers (Windows vs. Mac). It seems we're increasingly turning into people who can only see black and white and little in between. Is that where we want the discourse between open source software and proprietary software solutions to reside? I sincerely hope not.

Surely we can agree on some things:
  • Proprietary software can co-exist with open source. For instance, I'm extremely proud of what Ex Libris has done in supporting open source software. While I understand those of the “pure open source” camp will still find things to criticize in what I'm about to say, the facts are that Ex Libris has:
    • Opened its software platforms to support open source extensions
    • Participated in standards meetings to support the DLF API initiatives.
    • Sent speakers and attendees to open source conferences around the world to both learn and present.
    • Encouraged community-based software development.
    • Strongly supported standards and standards organizations.
    • Provided financial support to the open source community via direct financial contributions to the OSS4LIB conferences.
    • Organized meetings for open source developers where Ex Libris developers participate to learn and share how our open platform can be utilized to further support open source development.
  • “For-profit” is not bad. This is a cornerstone of our economy and our society. While I note a trend in many open source and even general library conversations that equate the words “for-profit” with “greed” and “bad”, the reality is that this is a diversionary tactic and serves no real purpose.

    Many universities and educators benefit directly from “for-profit” companies via their endowments and pension funds, both of which invest in, and hope for a good return via, these kinds of investments. (It reminds me of those that say they don't want government health care, but don't you dare touch my Medicare!)

    e reality is that good and successful companies listen to their customers, supply products/services that those customers need and will buy or else -– pure and simple -- they go out of business.

    Pricing of those products is always a discussion point and likely will continue to be. I remember what one company president I worked for said when asked how he arrived at a product price? His answer was “somewhere between what it costs to produce and what the market will bear”. If anyone thinks that libraries could previously, or can now, bear high profit margins; please tell me how to transport to your world. It's not one I've lived in for the last several decades.

    I've noted studies that said the cost of open source products and proprietary products usually turn out to be equal when all aspects of their production and implementation are factored into the equation. I've heard vendors of open source solutions say the same thing.
    When it comes to cost, it's just a difference of where the money will be spent.
  • Competition is good. Let me be clear. We welcome OLE in the marketplace. As I said in my original post, we see much merit in this project. The OLE work will make for better solutions, across the board. Yes, it's a different model of producing software than ours, but it doesn't make our model wrong and it doesn't make the open source software model right. The two methods are just different, each has has advantages and disadvantages that should be weighed by customers to find the one that best suits their specific needs. I agree, it's a big market. There will be alternatives. We'll each represent what we see as the advantages of our solution. Let's agree to let the customers decide.
  • Responsibility belongs to all of us. The current situation of libraries is no more the fault of proprietary software vendors than it is of librarians or any other single player. It's a complex world with many factors at play.

    Open source software organizations understand, as do proprietary firms, that ultimately libraries will determine their own fate. Their willingness to define a compelling vision of their role in the future is the key to their survival. (See my post about
    The future of research libraries and/or Libraries; A silence that is deafening. As software developers we offer a variety of tools and solutions to meet that vision.

    I think we'd be best served by allowing libraries to focus on the larger issues at hand. We can all do that through intelligent exchanges with clear statements of advantages and benefits.
  • Discourse is important. We at Ex Libris have learned a lot from the open source software movement. There is much we admire in this movement and have moved to incorporate into our products and initiatives in order to benefit our customers. If it benefits our customers, we understand that it benefit us as well.

    I wrote my OLE post because I thought it was an important topic and I wanted to share my experience, my view, and what input I could give the group to use in the project and those that wish to use the resulting product. It was never meant as a set of statements meant to foster fear, uncertainty or doubt. If we are wrong in our approach, then I would encourage discourse that helps us to understand why. If we're right (and let's recognize that companies like ours have been producing software for decades for this marketplace so surely we know a few things that would benefit the OSS developers) then perhaps our thoughts can be accepted as constructive input.
Given the quality, quantity and intelligence of the people involved in these discussions, I think it is time to raise this dialogue to a higher level.