Open Source E-commerce

The most ironic story of 1999 is that, while software development has rushed toward the Open Source model, our business has gone in the opposite direction. We’ve all tried to become Microsoft.

Now, open source has some compelling advantages. When you need a problem fixed, you’re much better off having everyone work on it than being dependent on one company, once everyone is working on something. When the answer is unknown, and the first one to reach it gets the prize, it makes more sense to use a proprietary model.

But that’s not where we are now. Just do the math. If 10 people are working on a problem, you must pay for the attention of 1, and the answers of the 1 will be unique. When 100 million people are working on a problem, paying for the attention of 1 won’t work as well as picking the brain of the 100 million, and chances are the answers of 1 won’t be unique either.

That’s what has happened in software development. Everyone does it and everyone has to. No matter how skilled the programmers at Microsoft (or any other operating system vendor), you’re more likely to get quick answers from the larger community (because someone else has been there). In this way open source doesn’t just threaten Microsoft, but Apple, Novell, IBM – anyone whose business model is based on proprietary standards for basic components.

As the folks at Forrester (and every other market research firm I heard from this fall) are so fond of saying, these are early days for e-commerce. There hasn’t been much expertise around. It’s also been raining money.

But as 1999 fades toward black it is time to admit a sober truth. The basic business models have been found, and nearly every group that might want e-commerce has been identified. The name of the game has changed, to execution, and everyone is a player.

In this new environment, the proprietary model we’ve been playing with no longer works. The audience you seek, the methodology you claim you’ll patent, is no longer any big advantage. Everything depends on execution, and everyone is a player.

Thus we have my modest proposal. Let’s make the year 2000 the year of Open Source e-commerce. That means we get back to basics. We send the lawyers home, we toss the NDAs into the circular file, and we start talking again about the execution problems we have in common.

It’s hard to integrate databases to deliver personalized services, but doing it is no longer a secret. It’s hard to organize an automated fulfillment center with integrated customer service, but everyone has to have it. It’s hard to find the right audience (not the whole audience, the right audience) for a new site or store, but we all have to go through that process, and we’ve been throwing money away looking for “position” and “proprietary advantage” for too long.

It’s time for all of us who are developing e-commerce to admit that most of our problems are shared problems. You may think you’re unique now, but when the capital windows close (and they will) you’ll admit I was right. And I’ll be right here (or write here) waiting to hear from you.

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