Issue #15 January 2006

Asia, the questions we ask

by Michael Tiemann


"You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers.
You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions."

Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

When I was asked to write for Red Hat Magazine about my recent trip to Asia, I immediately thought that the best way to share my experience was by sharing some of the questions I was asked.

I should perhaps begin my story where I began my trip: in America. In my experience, in America, I can pretty much tell which way a business meeting is going to go within the first five minutes of the conversation, based on whether the focus begins with an answer or a question. Shortly after we launched our first enterprise offering in mid 2002, Red Hat hosted a series of meetings with customers from around the country that began like this: "The CIO has decided that we should deploy Linux. Do you think we should do a web server or a print server first?" The answer, Linux, may have been right. But the question, devoid of context and meaning, showed no wisdom at all.

In Asia, the question is everything, and I do everything I can to find the people who ask the best questions. Perhaps one of the best questions I was ever asked was by Mr. Lee, then the Minister of Information and Communication for South Korea. Mr. Lee asked "In the past four years, 200+ companies have started up in Korea based on open source. And in the past four years, 200+ such companies have failed. What has made Red Hat so successful?" It's a question that Matt Assay has recently put into play again in this blog posting and a question that remains one of the defining questions of the technology industry. But to paraphrase Pierre de Fermat, the margins of this article are too small for me to provide a detailed answer, but perhaps I will in a later article. The point is not the specific answer, but the way that the question engages the imagination.

In the past year or so I have visited (sometimes more than once) Thailand, Singapore, Sri Lanka, India, Japan, and China, and each has gifted me with more questions than answers.

The IUCN is the world's largest conservation organization, bringing together over 70 states, more than 100 government agencies, some 800 NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) and over 11,000 scientists from 180 countries. Every three-to-four years, the IUCN convenes the World Conservation Congress, where all these parties engage in dialog and set (or correct) their collective agendas for the next 10-20 years. I was invited by the Director of the IUCN to the 3rd Congress held in Bangkok Thailand to help answer the question, "What can the scientific and conservation communities learn and apply from the open source community?" This is a delicate question because two of the pillars of traditional conservation science are antithetical to open source: (1) the traditional scientific publication industry, which is threatened by disseminating scientific information freely via the Internet, and (2) the treatment of biological data as national heritage and subject to strict export controls. Conservation science had evolved to a point where both data and data about data had become proprietary! It had become clear this was a problem, but was there a way out?

As I walked through the halls of the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, I was struck by the fact that it is the open source community that needs to learn from the IUCN! When I walk the floor of a typical business tradeshow, whether open source is a prominant participant or sitting somewhere in the margins, I'm struck by how little genuine collaboration there really is...how much the various members of the community play as if open source is a zero-sum game, not a positive-sum game where more participation leads to more success. The participants at those tradeshows seem to be about as related to one another as the junk mail I receive in my mailbox every day. What I saw at the Congress was the broadest diversity of people, projects, goals, and methods I'd seen in my life, all actively and positively engaged with one another. What would the Open Source community be like if we had an effective and transparent and accountable governance structure spanning more than 70 Federal governents, more than 100 government agencies, some 800 NGOs, and over 11,000 practitioners from 180 countries? It was that question that led me to propose, as President of the OSI, that we expand the Board of the Open Source Initiative from 100% US representation to include representatives from Brazil, India and Europe, Sri Lanka, and Japan, and to hold public meetings not only in the US, but around the world. The OSI does not yet have the UN standing that the IUCN enjoys, but it's a start! (And the IUCN has formally adopted the principles of the Conservation Commons, based on open source principles. See creativecommons.org.)

The question I heard every day in Singapore was, "What will be Singapore's role in the technology industry of the 21st century?" Historically Singapore leveraged its geographic centrality within Asia, its capital, and its stability to become a major trading hub for the region. How do things change when the goods become virtual and the ideas are the new capital? The incredible growth of conventional trade between China and the world has been a boon for Singapore, but what will it mean when China becomes a major trader of software capability? What has Singapore learned through its relationships with India? Is there some factor unique to open source that bodes particularly well (or poorly) for Singapore's diverse population (where even the currency is printed in four languages)?

When I was preparing to visit Japan, the question that kept me awake was why would anybody in Japan care about my stories from America? TCO (Total Cost of Ownership)? It doesn't really change the business. Collaboration? Popular in America, but still relatively unknown in Japan. User-driven innovation? That goes against the Japanese model of building products. Or does it? I knew that Japanese businesses suffer at least as much as American companies do as a result of bad software, but while American businesses had been aggressively changing over to open source solutions, Japanese IT managers seemed to accept this miserable status quo as some sort of fate. Then I remembered a meeting I'd had 10 years earlier in a city outside of Nagoya with a large automobile manufacturer I cannot mention. Automobile emissions are one of the great blights of the 20th century, choking cities, people, and other living things with byproducts of a reaction that should, in theory, create only CO2 and H20. Instead of asking "How much do we need to spend to keep Congress from getting serious about automobile emissions?" or "How can we clean more of the pollution out of the exhaust before releasing it into the air?" they asked "What if we made no pollution in the first place?" That company is now poised to be the #1 manufacturer world wide this year. The insipriation for their question, and the new inspiration for my visit to Japan, was W. Edwards Deming. My question related to open source in Japan became "What Would Deming Do?" And the answers were obvious.

In September, the Sri Lankan Government officially announced the week starting from the 5th of September as the National Free and Open Source Software Week, and I was honored to be invited as a guest of the Government at that event. Sri Lanka may look small next to India on a map, but on the open source software map, Sri Lanka has more top Apache developers than almost any other country. Sri Lanka's strength in open source comes from The Lanka Software Foundation, and open source is a pervasive topic among the leaders of government, education, and increasingly the private sector as well. Sri Lanka does a thriving business in the outsourcing market. While good for their current account balance, the question in Sri Lanka is "For all the people we employ and all of the technology we develop for other people, how do we create an indiginous industry that benefits people here in Sri Lanka, not just as employees, but as citizens?" Sri Lanka has, in my estimation, one of the most mature and robust e-Governance initiatives of any of the countries I've visited to date.

Whenever I think of India, I think of the great quote that starts off the movie The Little Princess: "India is the only place that stirs the imagination!" Imagine meeting the Minister of Education in his office in New Delhi. Imagine reporting that to address the open source gap in education, Red Hat rolled out a program for 7,000 elementary school teachers, most of whom had never used a computer before in their lives, so that they gained the ability to adminster those systems for use in their classrooms. Imagine reporting that the whole process was funded by Red Hat and delivered, with teachers trained, in six weeks. And then imagine the minister asking "What good does that do for me? I have 122,000 schools here in India?" In India, every question of every day involved the smallest of details and the largest of scales one can imagine, both equally important. I love it!

I made my first-ever visit to China at the end of November, a trip that was filled with anticipation and expectations. Having visited India twice before, and having heard so many comparisons and opinions concerning India's IT strategy and the strategy of China, I couldn't wait to have an authentic, first-hand experience. I knew before I arrived that China things in timeframes unimaginable to many Westerners. Where we think of tomorrow, they think about 50 years from now. Where we think about next quarter, they are aligned to a five-year plan. Where we think about the next two-three years, they are preparing for the next 5,000 years of history. The questions about open source look very different in these contexts, but also very interesting. Open source is building slowly in China, but slow, over China's time horizon, will also be enormous.

It is exciting and a bit mind boggling to think of all the different ways that open source is influencing the questions people ask and the answers they find, not only in Asia, but around the world. One thing I know for sure: We are still at the beginning of our journey.

About the author

Michael Tiemann has been asking questions about the commercial aspects of free software since 1987 and has been (reluctantly) giving answers since 1989. Michael signed the first commercial contract for free software development in 1991 (with a large company in Sweden), made his first international commercial tour in 1994 (visiting 9 countries in Europe in 21 days), and made his first of more than two dozen trips to Asia in 1996. Last year Michael flew over 250,000 commerical miles, talking about open source in addition to free software. He is Red Hat's VP of Open Source Affairs and President of the Open Source Initiative.