What I’ve been doing: New Opportunities.

Those who know me will not be surprised that the somewhat prolonged silence following my last post was not only for purposes of an extended summer vacation. Indeed I found myself even more busy than before immediately after the handover at FSFE in order to facilitate the knowledge transfer with the new team while doing some strategic technical consultancy and discussing three different options for my next “major” challenge.

These discussions have meanwhile come to a conclusion, but I’ll continue owing that answer just a little bit longer because of something else that reached me by means of an unexpected phone call sometime in late August while I was still on vacation with my wife in Sozopol, Bulgaria.

Imagine a new kind of organization, one that would focus on facilitating technological development of Free Software in a specific area through pooling of resources. Imagine an organization that would seek to strengthen an ecosystem of vendors based on Free Software technologies to build upon the unique advantages of Free Software for cooperation, competition and customer choice, and an organization that would participate in the systematic approaches that shape the environment for these technologies through standardization, legislation and public awareness.

Now imagine an organization that addresses all three aspects.

It is an inevitable truth of organizational strategy that no organization can do everything and do everything equally well. So any good company or organization requires focus. Historically that focus has always been either horizontal by dealing with all Free Software related challenges on a certain subject or vertical by addressing the needs of a specific project.

In this image, the new organization would have a diagonal focus, by dealing with a specific set of issues for a set of related projects. Because of its diagonal focus this organization would be complementary to existing organizations. It would cooperate with both horizontal and vertical organizations where there is overlap, providing additional weight and resources to both, while preserving its particular perspective of an entire technology segment.

This is good from a technological perspective for two reasons: (a) because it supports dialogue and cooperation where possible for the benefit of the user and Free Software, KDE and GNOME set a good example here, and (b) as they reach maturity, all projects tend to hit a certain type of roadblock that I would describe as “the non-sexy technological issue that won’t bring immediate benefit if fixed but is essential to allow future development of the project.” These issues are typically not trivial to fix, customers typically do not want to bear the entire load of addressing this roadblock and developers are hesitant to spend resource on it as they are concerned about recouping this investment.

Pooling of resources between developers, vendors that provide commercial offerings on top of the projects and users would be the ideal way of addressing these challenges – everyone benefits, everyone pays a little – but until now this has always proven very difficult to coordinate.

And finally there is the issue of promoting commercial activity around a Free Software technology segment based on an equal footing where all companies have the same starting position and none is more equal than others. This is something that I’ve been thinking of for quite some time now, starting from some initial thoughts in 1999 towards the idea of the GNU Business Network, and so were many others such as Simon Phipps who recently brought this back on the agenda.

So when I heard of the idea of combining all these aspects into a new kind of Free Software organization, I was intrigued, then curious, and quickly convinced to help bring this about. What followed were several weeks of rather frantic but highly rewarding activity.

The results of this work have just become visible with the re-launched web site of the Open Database Alliance, which has been incorporated as an association under Swiss law and also just launched its Weblog and Identi.ca channels. As you can see in this first posting of the ODBA, a lot of work has been done – but a lot more work remains to be done.

What we have now is a solid core of a house, providing an opportunity to fill it with life. Many of the components are still being shaped, such as: What kind of projects will the ODBA be running? Where to set priorities? Which forums will be important? What will be the ODBA patent policy? All these questions will be determined by those that decide to move into the house.

Since all these are the critical issues that end up giving such an organization its true shape it has been agreed that everyone moving in before the first General Assembly is going to be listed as a founding member. Right now is one of these unique moments and opportunities for our ecosystem, and I hope that many of you will seize it.

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