Engaging with Open Source Brings Competitive Advantage

Last month I wrote about an important development for companies outside the world of computing: collaborating on non-competitive code specific to their sector. That change in business practices is still in the early stages, and will probably take some years to move into the mainstream. Far further along is the transformation of many manufacturing companies into ones where open source plays a central role, not just in their IT infrastructure, but for their product line too. That's simply a consequence of the fact that more and more products are adding digital elements, and that the cheapest and best way to do that is to use open source.

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Last month I wrote about an important development for companies outside the world of computing: collaborating on non-competitive code specific to their sector. That change in business practices is still in the early stages, and will probably take some years to move into the mainstream. Far further along is the transformation of many manufacturing companies into ones where open source plays a central role, not just in their IT infrastructure, but in their product line too. That's simply a consequence of the fact that more and more products are adding digital elements, and that the cheapest and best way to do that is to use open source.

That means manufacturing companies need to understand and assimilate the open source methodology in order to gain the most benefit from this shift. Just how that might happen is nicely demonstrated in a fascinating article on the Linux Foundation's Linux.com site. It describes how one (very) large manufacturer - Samsung - went from merely using open source to engaging with projects and evangelising the methodology internally:

Almost two years ago, Samsung's open source team was just one person: Linux and FOSS advocate Ibrahim Haddad. The new Open Source Innovation Group at Samsung is now 40 people strong, including 30 developers, devoted full-time to working on upstream projects and shepherding open source development into the company. And it's growing.

Here's how developers apportion their time:

Developers in the open source group at Samsung are guaranteed to spend at least 50 percent of their time working on upstream projects. The other 50 percent is spent helping other product and R&D teams within Samsung, including a mentorship program to introduce other developers outside the core group to open source practices. They also travel to several open source conferences a year to present and participate.

What's interesting here is that Samsung rightly recognises that it is not enough simply to use open source software, or even to encourage others to use it: active engagement with the communities concerned is also needed. According to the Linux.com article, Samsung has even higher aspirations than simply working closely with those projects:

The mission of the open source innovation group is to contribute to, and eventually gain influence and leadership in, all of the open source projects the company relies on.

That's a very significant - and shrewd - statement. It shows that Samsung realises that as open source projects become important parts of a company's products, it is even more crucial to join them and to help determine their future direction, because that could have a big impact on a product line and thus the company.

This means that deep engagement with open source communities isn't just wise and rewarding, but will increasingly be seen as a way of gaining a competitive advantage. Companies using open source as criticial components of their products that don't engage meaningfully with the associated communities will find their futures determined in part by decisions taken by their rivals, and that's probably not a recipe for success.

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