In our never ending pursuit of the perfect description of the open source business model we’ve developed some analogies that resonate with many of our customers and collaborators. In particular there are two that seem to cause light bulbs to go off and lots of head nodding to occur. These revolve around tried and true professional services models, tax and legal assistance, two large industries with which we are all familiar. Plus, if these analogies hold true, they lead us to believe that we are in line to receive lucrative TV and movie deals if we play our cards right 🙂
Let’s start with the US Federal Tax Code: just how big is it? Well no one is completely sure but it appears to be over 3.5 million words and something like 72,000 pages long. Of course nobody actually understands the whole thing, so a large service industry, measured in billions of dollars, has emerged to help prepare tax returns and provide tax strategy advice. And by the way, the tax code is “open source” in that anyone can read it and prepare their own taxes, theoretically we don’t need specialists (or for that matter specialists’ knowledge embedded in tax-return software) to actually use the tax code. Giving away the Tax Code doesn’t seem to have damaged the tax preparation industry; if anything it’s given rise to many jobs and thriving businesses.
Similarly, the legal profession is the second largest professional service industry (after health care). Consider the basis for the industry in the US: the Federal Legal Code embodied in ~50 “titles” composed of many volumes each (this doesn’t even count the US State Codes). It is open source (for example see the Legal Information Institute which freely provides the US Federal code as well as state and international legal codes). And as many of you know from watching the TV shows Law and Order or Boston Legal, there are a lot of high-paid lawyers running around interpreting, applying and developing these codes (estimate are in the order of a couple hundred billion dollars for the legal services market in the US). In fact, in researching this blog I was taken aback by the way some lawyers describe themselves, it almost sounds like software developers speaking. From the noted attorney Karl Llewllyn in the ABA Journal in 1942, “the essence of our craftsmanship lies in skills and wisdom; in practical, effective, persuasive, inventive skills for getting things done…. We are the trouble-shooters.”
Open source communities are similar in that we are creating tens or hundreds of millions of lines of software code (i.e., very large and complex bodies of work, although rooted in science and engineering practices, and built with the aid of testing so the result is not as arcane and inconsistent as the tax and legal codes). In theory anybody can use this body of work for personal or commercial gain. The reality is that it’s a lot cheaper, and far more likely to produce better results if you hire the experts. Typically our customers contact us because they have pressing technology challenges, or want to jump their competition by integrating the latest technology into their workflow. Our experts make this happen fast and effectively.
One striking difference is that the tax and legal codes are developed through legislative process, here in the US by representatives of the people they democratically serve. Unfortunately we do not have direct write access to these codes (wouldn’t it be interesting if we did?) and must modify the code indirectly through these representatives. In the open source world, public codes are directly created by volunteers, employees, non-profits, academicians and companies who contribute to the public good. However the end result is the same in this sense: what’s created is a complex, large knowledge corpus which requires significant expertise to use effectively. Voilà a lucrative service model is born! Of course at Kitware our business model is more complex than this because the service model is paired with our collaborative R&D talents, thus the model combines technology creation with follow on servicing of the technology. This sounds like a virtuous cycle to me and is one of the major reasons why Kitware is such a great place to work.
And this has me thinking, if the lawyers have their own TV shows, why can’t we? Something like “Dashboards Gone Red” or “Extreme Debugging”. Whether you’re interested in this opportunity or more likely, working with some of the finest scientific computing professionals to be found anywhere, contact us and we’ll be happy to serve you.