Some Things are Meant to be Secret

I was reading an interesting post by Tim Bray today about how he thinks everything should be open.

Now, most of my experience is in the packaged software world and not that of IT departments in big companies, so my view is somewhat different than his. I can understand why a customer company that is basing its business of a piece of software might want the right to look inside it to see what is going on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a great idea across the rest of the software industry.  

Here’s why – when you develop a piece of packaged software, sometimes you only have a short amount of time to establish your product as a viable entity in the marketplace. If your competitors could just look inside your source code to see how you accomplished a certain feature that their product doesn’t provide, then your fledgling product would be neutralized almost instantly.

When I worked at Quark, we had a heated rivalry with Aldus Corp (now Adobe) and their product, PageMaker. Quark introduced several key desktop publishing features in version 3.0 that essentially cemented our lead over PageMaker in the DTP market. Had Aldus been able to get a hold of our source code, Quark’s trade secrets, along with the enormous amount of money we had invested in R&D to develop QuarkXPress 3 would have been for naught. Aldus would simply have copied our algorithms and updated their product to match ours.

I can go on and on with these examples – Dreamweaver, for example, had a fantastic feature whereby it would preserve the source code formatting that an HTML developer typed in. FrontPage didn’t have it. GoLive didn’t have it. PageMill didn’t have it. NetObjects Fusion didn’t have it. We spent a lot of time and money developing that feature, and it ended up being a key competitive advantage for us.

Now imagine that you’re the one competing with somebody like Macromedia, or Adobe, or IBM. You have a great idea for a product, you’ve done your market research, and you want to make a go of it. Now imagine telling potential investors and customers that yes, because your product is Open Source, anybody can read the code and see how you solved a particularly prickly problem that up until now nobody else has tackled well. How much investment capital do you think you’ll get? How many customers?

Tim says that "the days when the recipe for success included wrapping the engineering in a veil of secrecy, those days are gone". I don’t agree – I think that this is one area where the very idea of Open Source just falls flat on its face. Tim, how do you protect your competitive advantage when your competitors can just look at your source code and cherry-pick the best ideas? Not every company in the world can just become a services company and compete on price. There’s a reason why it’s called "intellectual property."

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