A Colmar Conversation

The clouds which hovered all day finally started letting go of a bit of rain on the town of Colmar, France.  My wife and I ditched the kids in front of the television at the hotel and went downtown for a date.  As we wound our way through the streets of wooden framed buildings we passed a few fountains.  Rumor is that one of them served as the inspiration for the Bonjour scene of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  One of my colleagues at work had served his Mormon mission in this area and recommended we try the local flam (a thinly crusted pizza).  When we found an open cafe with the dish we sat down outside the building under the awning and began to do some people watching while waiting for our order.

My wife who speaks fluent German and I both feel equally out of place in France.  Neither one of us knows the language and after a couple of days of just us and the kids, this date was likely going to involve the same routine conversation.  Then a family sat at the table next to us who obviously spoke English and that gave me an opening for breaking up our conversation with one that involved our new neighbors.

We didn’t exchange names.  I’m rather terrible with names and I don’t ask for them when I don’t have to.  Asking gives the false impression that I might actually try to memorize what you’re called instead of all the other interesting facts like how you feel about a certain subject.  After a small round of exchanging travel notes we began to talk about our employment.  When it was his turn the gentleman explained that he works selling finance and accounting software.  I mentioned working on my masters in IT/Project Management and that I’m a fan of open source.

“Oh, you’re just like some of the people that work for me!  If they had it their way they would have open sourced the whole suite.”  I smiled back.  “But,” he continued “I like selling licences.”  He said this glancing over at his wife and son.  Then looked back at me as if he was waiting for me to be offended.

I wasn’t.

The gentleman’s appearance told me he had probably ten years on me by age so I assume that he’d been around enough to have had this conversation before.  I think he was surprised that I offered no argument.  My only response was “I like open source software because it’s helped me solve problems when nothing else was accessible.  In addition I really appreciate being able to leverage the volumes of information on troubleshooting that I can’t find anywhere else.”

There wasn’t much he could say to that, and to my enjoyment he wasn’t upset by my response.  The dialogue continued.  The flam came, was delicious, and all in all we each passed a pleasant evening as the rain subsided and gave way to a sunny conclusion to the day.

I have a theory about people with bad ideas.  Sometimes it’s worth correcting on the spot.  Other times it’s more helpful to let them keep talking because eventually they’ll realize they’ve painted themselves into a corner.  I’ve also learned that sometimes the latter strategy takes years.  

That’s why I don’t mind licensing for various proprietary closed source software.  It’s a model that paints the manufacturer into a corner.  I don’t mind Lightroom and Photoshop requiring a subscription.  I consider them tremendously useful applications.  Will they always be proprietary?  Probably not, but each month when I pay the subscription fee I’m getting a useful set of tools and investing in letting Adobe make those tools better.

Subscription fees are wonderful tools for paying for software.  Unlike a one time sale, they provide a steady income that facilitates paying the bills while investing in more features.  World of Warcraft taught the industry how successful the model could be, and it’s taken the industry quite a few years to mature to making this model become the norm.  Microsoft and Adobe both offer subscriptions for their software and can easily analyze their metrics when the subscription model starts to fail.  This makes the system much more responsive to customers than previous payment schemes.  

The real leap of faith for us is trusting the customer.  Matt Hartley, editor for FreedomPenguin.com has repeatedly stated that people just want their machines to work.  They don’t necessarily buy them to tinker.  They buy them to get a job done.  Currently they’re willing to exchange a portion of their wealth for the productivity of the tool.  No over priced model can function forever as long as those with the wealth have a choice about how they spend it.  The subscription model improves the communication between the manufacturer and the customer.  When those customers start to see that they have the option to be productive without exchanging their wealth–or find a system that provides them with more in exchange for that same amount of wealth–then they’ll move to open source.

The missionary efforts of the Mormon Church include good media production, but as my colleague at work will tell you referrals from friends are the most successful.  This year is the year of the Linux Desktop for all the thousands of people who get an invitation to switch and act upon it.  The year you switched was your year of the Linux Desktop (2008) and I’m happy to report that the food in Colmar still tastes good even if an invitation gets rejected.  Ironically I’ve come to realize that Beauty and the Beast is a simple story about overcoming an act of impetuous rejection.