Saturday, May 17, 2008

Eric S. Raymond on Proprietary ILSs

There's been a discussion going on recently on the code4lib mailing list about Innovative Interfaces' plans to remove some functionality from the terminal-based interface to Innopac/Millennium, nominally due to a security hole in that interface. The problem is that many site have written specialized programs, which interact with the terminal interface, to automate certain common operations, and those programs will no longer work. Eric Raymond, a prominent open source advocate, wrote a paper entitled The Magic Cauldron (collected in The Cathedral and the Bazaar) that directly addresses the difficulties that we are starting to become more aware of and vocal about:
Suppose you go the conventional closed-source route. If you do, then you put your firm at the mercy of a supplier monopoly—because by definition, there is only one place you can go for support, bug fixes, and enhancements. If the supplier doesn't perform, you will have no effective recourse because you are effectively locked in by your initial investment and training costs. Your supplier knows this. Under these circumstances, do you suppose the software will change to meet your needs and your business plan...or your supplier's needs and your supplier's business plan?

[...]

Contrast this with the open-source choice. If you go that route, you have the source code, and no one can take it away from you. Instead of a supplier monopoly with a chokehold on your business, you now have multiple service companies bidding for your business—and you not only get to play them against each other, you have the option of building your own captive support organization if that looks less expensive than contracting out. The market works for you. (cite)
I do think that he was overly optimistic about the marketplace providing "multiple service companies bidding" for our support business, but that is beginning to happen. And we're also starting to see the creation of the "captive support organization[s]" that he predicted as larger library systems begin to recognize that it is cheaper to build a new, or adapt an existing, open source ILS than it is to pay for even one year of a license and support contract with the larger proprietary ILSs.

I can only wonder how long it will take the large ILS vendors to recognize that the only way they can compete is by opening up their systems and simplifying access to our data, which they are merely storing. Continuing to restrict access and block innovation will only drive more libraries to systems that let librarians, and their users, be creative.

3 comments:

Peter Murray said...

Thanks for refreshing our collective memories about Raymond's writing and relating it to the current situation with integrated library systems. In your last paragraph you say: "I can only wonder how long it will take the large ILS vendors to recognize that the only way they can compete is by opening up their systems and simplifying access to our data, which they are merely storing." I don't expect innovation as you describe will come from the "large ILS vendors" because they are hard-wired to not do so; here's why.

Clayton Christensen wrote a book called "The Innovator's Solution" in which he proposed the resources-processes-values theory for assessing what an organization can and cannot do. "Resources include people, equipment, technology, product designs, brands, information, cash, and relationships with suppliers, distributors, and customers.... The patterns of interaction, coordination, communication, and decision making through which they accomplish these transformations [inputs of resources into products and services of greater worth] are processes. Processes include not just manufacturing processes, but those by which product development, procurement, market research, budgeting, employee development and compensation, and resource allocation are accomplished...." [1]

Perhaps the most important of the criteria, though, is values: "An organization's values are the criteria by which employees make decisions about priorities -- by which they judge whether an order is attractive or unattractive, whether a customer is more important or less important, whether an idea for a new product is attractive or marginal, and so on. Employees at every level make decisions about priorities.... The larger and more complex a company becomes, the more important it is for senior managers to train employees at every level to make independent decisions about priorities that are consistent with the strategic direction and the business model of the company. Clear, consistent, and broadly understood values, however, also define what an organization cannot do." [1]

Now here is the hard-wired part, taking Innovative Interfaces as an example. It has only a certain amount of resources to accomplish everything they want to do. As authors in the Code4Lib mailing list said, the history of Innovative as a company is to provide a turnkey experience where no local programming support is needed. That is a deeply engrained value. The processes that stem from that value have a tendency to squelch the use of resources to develop and support products that would do otherwise. The resources-processes-values chain is not set in stone, however. Most notably, I'll offer, is Innovative's integration of the Oracle RDBMS at the back-end. The chain was modified by a decision to respond to an RFP that required an Oracle back-end.

Similarly, the other ILS vendors are governed by a resources-processes-values chain. Innovation may come in the form of open source solutions and, as Eric Raymond describes, the "multiple service companies" -- those organizations operate by an entirely different resources-processes-values chain.


[1] Christensen, Clayton M. "Assessing Your Organization's Innovation Capabilities" Leader to Leader. 21 (Summer 2001): 27-37. This article was a precursor to "The Innovator's Solution" book.

David J. Fiander said...

Peter, Thanks for such an in-depth response. I am familiar with Christensen's work, although I haven't read the Solution.

I think that the difference between Equinox and LibLime on one side, and Innovative on the other, is little more than the foundation for that "turn-key" experience. In Raymond's terms, Innovative locks you in to their turn-key support system, while Equinox and LibLime provide a similar turn-key experience based on the service model rather than the product model. Josh Ferrero once said to me that some of his customers treat LibLime's support for Koha as a "rent-to-own" model: they buy the services as a bridge while they develop the in-house expertise and comfort with the system.

Regarding the fact that Innovative successfully moved to an Oracle back-end, I suspect that they didn't do it in a way that Date or Codd would appreciate.

And, just to clarify: I'm not picking on Innovative for any particular reason beyond the fact that this was the recent example. Sirsi has recently demonstrated Raymond's thesis much more blatantly, with their cancellation of an entire product line, for which they had already signed contracts.

Peter Murray said...

"I think that the difference between Equinox and LibLime on one side, and Innovative on the other, is little more than the foundation for that "turn-key" experience." -- good point. The 'turn-key' experience is just one of several values that Innovative holds in high regard, and it is not the exclusive holder of that value in the ILS marketplace. Your service model versus product model is another form of an organizational value that gets codified into processes, and it could be one of many distinguishing factors.

"And, just to clarify: I'm not picking on Innovative for any particular reason beyond the fact that this was the recent example." -- agreed; the same goes for my comments. Innovative is just used as an example of an ILS vendor following established and well-worn resources-processes-values chain.