Everyone likes free right? Free food. Free drinks. Free money. Free software. Except when it is free you always need to look for the catch don’t you? After all there is no such thing as a free lunch is there? If it is free, then follow the money. What is being sold? Is it you? Is it your future? Is it a risk you are willing to take?
Let’s start with TV. About 10 or 11 years ago, here in the UK, I bought one of the last Tivo Series 1 boxes that was sold. Tivo was ahead of its time in the UK market. People were still struggling with the concept of recording TV on anything other than VHS tapes, so Tivo sadly failed to capture a market which was then exploited by UK satellite TV provider Sky, with their Sky+ boxes, which did pretty much the same thing.
Now I liked my Tivo box – it did what I wanted it to do – worked nearly flawlessly – and the only problem was that they weren’t around to sell me updated hardware that might record more channels or a higher resolution. And so last year, it finally got decommissioned, to be replaced not with a commercial offering, but with a home-built MythTV solution. We bought a basic PC, stuck in a 4-tuner HD card, and installed and configured MythTV on Mythbuntu – an open source free TV recording software solution that pretty much again meets our needs.
So is this a parable that we can compare against the market for commercial middleware solutions? After all buying from Tivo all those years ago, only to be effective marooned would be pretty much like buying a promising product from some fledgling software company only to see the company go out of business leaving you high and dry.
(I must point out at this point that Tivo re-entered the UK PVR market a year or so ago in partnership with cable TV firm Virgin, and also that they continued to support their old TV boxes for many years – so did much better than many firms would.)
So when looking for middleware solutions, should businesses be looking at free and open source solutions, rather than taking a bit of a punt on a small commercial provider who might be gone in 6 months, or change their market focus even if they do stay around?
Well, let’s look at our MythTV solution. Are we happy with it? Does it do the job. Yes, and Yes. But still there are issues. It records pretty much as many programs as we want, and we can stream them direct over the home network to the TV. We didn’t pay a penny for the software – just the hardware, and on a regular basis it tells us there are fixes to be installed. But here’s the thing. As good as it is there is a recurring, seemingly random error with the TV tuner card being ‘lost’ by the software so it tries to record, but has a blank recording. We have figured various ways round it, so on the whole it’s survivable. But it is not something I would put up with in a commercial offering. It would have gone back. In fact the only reason we went with MythTV was that no commercial offering did what we wanted.
So why do we put up with it? As I mentioned above, we can work around it, and on the whole it does what we want. And let’s face it, the worst thing is we don’t get a TV program recorded. And at the end of the day, that’s not important. What is important is your customers, your business data, your transactions, your partner orders. These are not something you take a risk on. These are something that when you are handling in your business you take care of.
So when you are evaluating your middleware software – maybe comparing WebSphere MQ to other solutions that promise you ‘free’ or ‘open source’, then maybe you need to figure out what it is for. Is it for something you care about? Does it matter to you? Maybe you actually ought to invest in it a little to ensure you get the best. The companies producing these software solutions need to invest to build and support them. Providing them as open source, or free is simply one distribution option – but the goal is still to make money.
IBM recently contributed the MQTT standard, and the source for our MQTT clients to the Eclipse Paho project. It is actually rewarding that this standard has been picked up by many vendors, who are producing their own clients and support. And this was essential for the success of the protocol. In order to be taken up by M2M vendors, and to better penetrate the mobile space, a wide range of support was needed. And this was accelerated by making it a standard and providing source code. It is a means to an end. Just like in the TV world if you subscribe to Sky, they give you a Sky+ box – something I needed to buy from Tivo all those years ago. They can offer this for free because it provides you with a stronger reason to be committed to buying their TV subscription. Stop doing that and you lose the benefit of your free solution. Not so free then after all.
So when looking at your middleware options, make sure you think carefully, about the value your place on your business, and the need you have for freedom of movement for your business and its future, rather than free software for today.
By the way, if anyone wants 4 (yes 4) old Tivo Series 1 boxes, please let me know.