In this episode, I’m talking with James Vasile, a Partner in Open Tech Strategies, a consultation firm based in New York City. This conversation is going to explore the why/why not, the upsides and any downsides about open source in energy access. I’m going to try and cover some of the most common questions that I hear.
James Vasile is a recognized expert on free and open source software. He has over fifteen years of experience as a user, developer, advocate, and advisor in all things open source; and has further expertise in licensing and community-building, as well as non-profit and small business startup. Open Tech Strategies works with a wide range of clients such as Microsoft, the MacArthur Foundation, The Red Cross.
Why should people open source their work? What are the benefits? What are the downsides? What should you consider before you pick which license you want to go with? James helps companies figure out these questions every day.
Blog series mentioned in the episode: Open Source At Large
Hi, this is Tamara Mahoney, and this is the Open Energy Access podcast from the EnAccess foundation. This is the show where we focus on what's happening in the energy access sector in terms of development, innovation, success, and failure. I started this podcast for those of us who are working in or studying energy access now, but if you're interested in innovation development studies or are just generally interested in open source work, you'll find the topics that we discussed to be pretty relevant. So brief introduction - EnAccess supports open source in energy access. We both fund open source projects and we promote and celebrate any open source news or project that will accelerate global energy access. Broadly speaking, we fund two categories of projects. We've got the moonshot concept ideas, and we've got the innovation pilots. You can read more about these types of projects and why we fund them, and our open source philosophy by visiting our website enaccess.org. With Open Energy Access....
I try to share the very real practical and useful lessons from different people within our sector. In this particular episode, I'm talking with James Vasile, a partner in open tech strategies, a consultation firm based in New York city. This conversation is going to explore the why and the upsides and the downsides about working in open source. And we're going to talk specifically about how it's used in energy access. I'm going to try to cover some of the most common questions that I usually hear. I recently learned who James Vasile is and about what Open Tech Strategies does after I read this great series of blog posts called Open Source at Large, which is published on blog.opentechstrategies.com. It is a type of blog series that really answers tons of good frequently asked questions about kind of how to get started in open source. And it spells things out really simply.
I started to learn a little bit more about open tech strategies and a little bit more about who James Vasile is. He is a recognized expert on free and open source software. He has over 15 years of experience as a user, a developer, an advocate, and an advisor for all things open source. He has further expertise in licensing and community building as well as non-profit and small business startup. Open Tech Strategies works with a wide range of clients, such as Microsoft, the MacArthur foundation, the red cross, just to name a few James agreed to come on open energy access, and I'm really happy to have him join this conversation. So let's get started, James, thanks again for joining me today. Could you please go ahead and introduce yourself?
My name is James. I've lived in New York my entire life. I've done work with the policy side with and the development side. I worked at the software freedom law center for awhile and all of this work kind of animated. My notion of the role technology is to complainant people's lives, which is one of giving more people, more access to the world of information and tech and the removal of barriers. So from my point of view, all of the work I do is really grounded in how can we do great things and how can we share them as widely as possible?
How did you get involved with Open Tech Strategies?
Open Tech Strategies was an idea that I had with Karl Fogel. When we started doing all of this work individually, we were both kind of trying to figure out how we could help other people be great at open source. And at some point I realized we were doing similar kinds of, uh, advice-giving and consulting work, and we decided to join forces and do it together. And so about a decade ago, we formed Open Tech Strategies. Open Tech Strategies has been both a consultancy where we provide services to other people, just also a personal gathering point for me and Karl and our extended network of free software friends. We try to help people who are interested in open source, do it well and get back actual defined, measurable, predictable benefits from it and benefits that you really can only get from doing things in an open source way.
So in addition to doing strategy, we also do a lot of development. We make, we make a lot of open source software for clients, you know, mostly with the goal of just helping them get to that activation point where they're seeing some of the feedback loops, you get an open source. And then also to try to make sure that we're transferring the skills from our very experienced open source team to their usually less experienced open source team. Open Source is kind of exploding all around the world. And there's so many projects, so many sectors in which it is starting to take root and spread. And it is growing from industry to industry. I've seen the things that work well, and more importantly, I've seen the things that work less well.
So this is why I wanted to bring you on this podcast, because I kind of feel like it's time for our sector to, to get a little bit of information, to learn and to listen to people who aren't necessarily in energy access, but do have a lot to teach us about open source in the introduction. I mentioned what kinds of projects EnAccess funds and they're not written in stone, right? So if someone has an idea for a cool project, that's going to benefit the energy access sector, go ahead and apply. But there is kind of this one hard and fast rule that we have, which is that it has to be open source. It can't be a project that only benefits one company, whatever you're working on, you have to agree to publish everything, which means that another company can come along and use it, take it apart, put it back together, again, change it, tweak it. So we really consider on the projects that we fund to be building blocks. So with all this being said, why should someone open source their work, particularly in a sector that's still quite young and changing very, very rapidly?
In most of the places I look there's a little bit of a race to be the first to kind of deliver technology, right? It's, it's a very capital intensive field. It's a very infrastructure based field. And so there's, there's a lot of advantages to getting there first. And you can try to run that race on your own, or you can try to get together with all the other people who are trying to get there and cooperate to try to get there faster. You might say, why does this give you any advantage? If you're all trying to get there at the same time? And the answer is that it might not give you an advantage, but if you don't do it, your competitors probably will. So you can either join the crowd that is, that is moving fast, or you can try to compete against the entire crowd all by yourself and try to replicate that entire stack all by yourself.
And that's not really possible or easy for most companies. So the main reason why I say you have to do open source increasingly and more sectors is that your competitors are doing it. And the more your competitors are doing it, they're gaining the advantages of open source. And increasingly you have to go take advantage of open source just to kind of meet minimum level of competition. So it's not even a question of, if I do this, I will automatically succeed. If I don't do this, I will find myself falling further and further behind because my competitors are splitting development costs among them. And I'm trying to stack all my development costs against all my competitors, which means I better grow really fast, or I better have a lot of money in order to keep up with it. Or you have to have very high prices.
And a really good example of this is Apple versus Android. Apple makes a proprietary closed phone. Android makes an open source phone that any company can, can ship its operating system on it. Every time the Android ecosystem makes a feature, Apple has to make that feature. So the Android ecosystem is, you know, call it five or six giant companies. And Apple is only one. The Android folks split their development costs by five or six, Apple bears it all alone. They do not make a budget phone because they cannot afford to make a budget phone that they have this aura about them as they are only a luxury product, right. But you know, in all respects for everything on one side of the ecosystem, you can find it equivalent on the other. And you'll find places where an Android is doing better and you'll find places where Apple is doing better.
And so I don't think you can say that they are blowing away the competition. What you can say is they are managing to keep up, but they are working so hard to do it. You, you know, you can never make a budget iPhone. And so if your costs start to creep up even more, you might find out that you can no longer compete. There are a lot of countries where they can't even enter the market because they're so high. So that's the cost of not being open source, which is that you, you can't take advantage of any of those efficiencies of any of that cost splitting of any of that evangelism of any of the ways in which open gives you a natural market. You have to do so much more marketing. You have to have a much bigger brand. You have to charge a much higher premium and you have to execute really well.
That adds up to a set of circumstances that most companies can't actually keep up with. Apple's managing to do it, bless them for it, but most companies can't actually do it that well. And so, you know, the reason to use open source is if you don't your competitors as well. The other reasons to use open source are that if you have the right shape product and the right shape strategy, it might be that the technology you are making is not the most crucial part of the value you are delivering to your clients. And especially in those situations where the technology is just kind of a cost factor. It's just, it's not the differentiator. It's not the thing that makes you special. It's just another piece of infrastructure you need in place in order to do what is actually your core business. Well, that's the thing that you don't need to make money on that infrastructure.
You need to drive the costs as far down as you can. That's the point where you absolutely should be sourcing it and let your competitors in on it, you know, split those costs and then compete in the air, drop drive the, the arena of competition towards the place where you have the advantages. And we see that a lot in a lot of sectors where ancillary technology, the stuff that is not the core of your business, just isn't worth keeping proprietary. In fact, it's not even worth making. Usually you want to find somebody else who makes it or find it, find it open source project that's already out there and adopt it. And if that open source project doesn't exist, it is reasonable to start it and you want it to exist. So you've got to push that technology out the door. In most cases, you want to share everything right up until the interface layer right up until the part that your customers can see.
Like that's the part you really control user experience. That's the part where you really can differentiate yourself everything below that. It kind of makes sense too, to share widely everything above that you kind of need to control. Um, just because you want to have that ability to define the user experience and you really can make unique value delivery at that point. And when you're talking about energy access, you're not just talking about software, you're also talking about hardware. And so, you know, you have the software layer, which I think behaves the way I just described, but you also have the hardware layer, um, the inference of the physical infrastructure layer, and you'll see completely different dynamics there where your ability to execute on technology becomes as important as your ability to create technology. If you're making circuit boards, right. Or if you're designing systems, that's the kind of thing that benefits from a lot of scrutiny and a lot of eyes, but it's also very expensive to make that stuff.
It's very expensive to design that stuff. And so there might be instances where you can look at something and say, if we hold this close, we can have an advantage for some amount of time and you might want to delay opening it. But I guarantee you that even that set of technology will age and become less valuable over time. And with the pace of innovation, moving that window in which you have an advantage on it is kind of shrinking. And I think very soon, we'll be at a point where that window is small enough, that it's not worth holding close, because if you hold it close again, somebody else will start an open thing and then you'll be competing against that open thing. So you kind of have to figure out how do you prevent other people from occupying that open space? And if there's an empty space that you can occupy with open, there's usually a pretty good advantage there, but that's going to be a little bit more specific to the circumstances of your mind.
I think you have a lot of really, really a lot of really wise words for people and energy access. There's a lot of what you said that describes really what people are doing here so much. So first of all, making something open source that is not like your core business, your absolute thing that sets you apart from everyone else. This is, you know, this is actually the kind of projects that we really love to fund because when something is open-sourced, the idea is that it could save someone else some time or some money. The idea is that we could achieve energy access globally that much faster. If we take away some of the limitations, like having to create things over and over and over again, for example, the project from okra, they made Cicada this open source IOT device, they needed it. And one didn't exist that worked that great. And so they had to go and make it themselves and they need it to function, but it's not their core business. So yeah, they were like, of course, yeah. Why not open source stuff?
Absolutely. And you know, even, even if making those IOT devices was the core of their business, you really want to look at what would the world look like if my product were much more popular, what kinds of additional opportunities would that open up for me? Right. If it's open source, maybe that is the entry point for lots of other organizations and companies and people to not only adopt, but build on and make your device more valuable. Right? One of the advantages of open source is that it starts to grow ecosystems around it. And if you were product is at the center of an open ecosystem, that ecosystem makes your product more valuable. It raises the value proposition of your product and allows you to sell more of it or charge more for it, or, you know, develop additional products on top of it. So whenever we can find that kind of ecosystem dynamic, potentially ecosystem, we say that there's a, a reason to open source, which is growing the entire market around your product. So even when you are the, when the product itself is the core of what you're delivering, there's still often value in open sourcing.
When we had our first conversation, I remember you had a phrase, but I forget what it was. The concept of open sourcing, not just technology or software and hardware, but open sourcing, a business plan, open sourcing, a business model, open sourcing your financial records, um, open sourcing concepts. Do you think that they fall under open source? I can say that EnAccess does - we absolutely put everything under that umbrella. We are just sticking with the words open source, whether that means a business model or it means an IOT device. What do you think about that?
Open Source started in software. It's a pretty unique domain for opening things, but we got a lot out of it. People looked at that model and said, Hey, that really works well. Let's try it in hardware. Let's try it in data. Let's try it in content. And those are things that are kind of software adjacent. And we discovered that it actually works pretty well in other fields, but not the same in each domain. You bring it to, you have to make adjustments, right? The rules are gonna change. The, the needs are gonna change. The law is going to change. Then we, we said, okay, it works pretty well in data and hardware and content. Let's see what else we can apply it to. And we started looking at other things that might be kind of like software. One of them is knowledge, right? Things like business plans.
And we, we have people open sourcing recipes, right there, there are, I don't even know how many open source beer recipes there are. And that kind of desire to say that this is a set of knowledge about how to make something and we can open source of that knowledge and that replicated. That's pretty common. We're trying to, we're trying to run that experiment in as many places as we can. And what we're learning is that every place you bring that approach to you can get benefits, but you can never just copy the model from somewhere else. You always have to adjust it for the specific set of circumstances you're approaching. Even the content. You know, we talked about creative commons, licensed content, and that's nicely open source. But to me, even that is too broad because the content is going, the content licenses are going to act very differently.
When you're talking about journalism. Then when you're talking about a movie or a novel and or a drawing, it's just, it's just not the same thing. And all those are very different than software. So every time you apply one of these licenses, I think you need to sit down and think about what is it that I'm trying to accomplish and how will this work? When I open this up, what are the dynamics that are going to emerge on a practical level? You know, put yourself in the position of all the other folks in your potential ecosystem and say, what's going to get them to come and contribute as opposed to, what's going to get them to look at this and say it doesn't match my needs. And I can't interact with you the way you want me to interact with you, you know, in a way that is mutually beneficial. So yeah, I love all of this open, everything people have always shared knowledge. That's, that's always been true, but it's only recently that we've decided to try to apply the specific open lens to knowledge. And I think we're still pretty early in that experiment, but the early results are promising.
I think so too. I mean, it's something that it really excites me personally. I do like this part of open a lot. Now how about you're talking about licenses. And so I want to, I want to touch on that topic. If a company, especially a startup, you know, think a company that's been around for less than 10 years and they come across a place like the EnAccess Foundation, they say, Oh, wow, like unaccessible will become my partner and fund my project if I open source it. Great. That sounds great. Excellent. Here's all my stuff. What should they know about open source licensing? How much time should someone spend educating themselves about this? And once you decide to put a certain type of license on your project, what could happen if you change your mind?
All the time - people change their minds all the time. I think the main thing to know here is that there are a range of open source licenses as somebody who has expertise here. I always want people to spend less time thinking about licenses because that's kind of the least interesting of the sharing that we're doing. You kind of want to pick it up and move on. So I'll, I'll tell you that you want to look at the MIT license, which is very permissive. It just basically says, Hey, here, do whatever you want with it. Then you've got the Apache license. That is the same thing, but includes a little bit of patent protection. And so you might want to look at the patent closer on Apache, and then you have the GPL family of licenses, which are copyleft licenses. And they try to create a common pool of technology.
By saying, here, you can use my software, but if you use it, you have to give other people the same rights you got, which is to say, they get to use your software and change it and modify it and do whatever they want with it. The reason to choose among these is just to look at your ecosystem. You want to build and ask what are my priorities is my priority. That we always maintain a common core of shared infrastructure and software that we can build on, or is my priority enticing people to use my source projects by giving them no restrictions by telling them they don't have to share. They don't have to give back. They could just be purely extractive and exploitative if they want to. And among those two choices, you get a range of possible business outcomes. And so then you just kind of have to look at your ecosystem, figure out what matches your strategy, what matches the other players in your field and choose something. And when I say that the permissive licenses allow this purely extractive relationship, I don't mean to say that it is likely that you will end up in that situation. It's just to say that your competitors will have that option. You can do all sorts of things to try to get people to contribute, even when they don't have to. And there's a ton of successful software that proves that out. So you're not choosing an extreme when you choose the permissive licenses and on the Copyleft side, you also have the ability to make exceptions
When people are considering open sourcing their work, what could go wrong?
So the big fear that everyone has is that you do all of the work, spend all of the effort, the time the money put in the investment to make something. And then someone swoops in, picks it up, sells it as their own and gains all the benefit of your hard work without ha without having done any of that work themselves. And without returning any of that value to you in practice, we find this doesn't really happen. Very often. The company, most able to exploit a piece of technology is the company that knows it best, which is the company that made it. And what we tend to find is that people who use open source technology in their business tend to benefit from it in rough proportion, to the amount of contribution they have made to that product. So if you are the vast majority of the effort that goes into making something, you tend to be the vast majority to collect the vast majority of the value and benefit of that thing, existing and operating in the world.
We've seen that in so many places, in so many industries over and over and over again, that we think it is an imperative. So whenever we see, you know, somebody comes into your ecosystem and really starts using your product. The first thing you want to do is start the conversation with them, where you say, Hey, you are now dependent on this open source thing, and that produces a vulnerability for you at risk. And if you don't start contributing back in some way, you are at constant risk from the product, no longer suiting your needs, and you suddenly not having a business anymore. You have to get involved in the development. Otherwise what you have is a dependence on an outside vendor who isn't going to take care of your needs. So, you know, whenever someone says, Oh, well, what if somebody just kind of takes, takes this thing and runs with it? We think that's unlike very few businesses are capable of doing that. And then there are exceptions to that. Absolutely. But for the most part, that's not the concern. It doesn't happen.
Everyone who is working in our sector, whether they are a funder, whether they're a startup, whether they're an investor, whether they're a software developer, we're all working towards this one goal, right? To achieve global energy access. Have you worked with any other young sectors, with ambitious goals who are putting their feet in the water when it comes to open source? And what could we learn from that?
Yeah, I have, I mean, open source works best when you have other collaborators who are ready to work with you. And the problem with young sectors that haven't embraced open source yet is that if you are the only open source player in your sector, you don't have those industry collaborators that help you make it all worthwhile. And so you need to do a variety of evangelism, not just around your product, but around the open source collaboration and try to get everyone else to, to work with you. And that's, that's hard to do. That's definitely the big problem is being the first mover in an open source field is the hardest leap to make. The second is significantly easier. By the time you get to the third, it all just starts to make sense. My advice is just start small and everywhere. There's success double down on it, really invest in your success and then examine your failures to understand why things didn't work and how you can change it.
And pretty soon open source just kind of becomes a natural way to approach things. And eventually you'll have other folks at other companies doing the same thing. And this comes back to your point earlier about open sourcing your business model, open sourcing your knowledge, which is to say, if you're doing this open source thing, don't hide it. Tell your competitors, tell your colleagues throughout the industry, try to get them excited about doing it as well because your, your benefit from doing this will be magnified if they also do this. And so that's the that's the task is recognizing that open source requires specific investment beyond just you skilling up. It's talking to everyone else and getting them to do it too,
Which is hard and a lot of work. I think that's where the energy access sector is, you know, overall as an industry. I think that's probably where we're in that stage. And I don't think that there's any reason to think that we are going to stay in this stage for too long. So yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Thanks for publishing all the information that you publish, because there's still so much to learn. Just looking at your website. There's so much good information.
Absolutely. And we would encourage people to contact us, you know, anyone listening, who's doing this kind of energy access work. We're always up for a conversation. We can at least point you in the right direction and who knows, maybe we can actually get involved in helping meaningful .
Let's see where we will be in five years.
Absolutely. Thanks again. Thank you Tamara.
And thank you to everyone for listening. So I'll be sure to put up a link for open tech strategies and their blog series Open Source at large, within the podcast show notes. And if you have any questions for myself or for James, just shoot. One of us an email. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and he's email@example.com. I would love to hear your feedback, your opinions, your ideas about anything we discussed in this episode, or if there's anything that we didn't cover that you think we should be discussing. Let me know that too. And if you have an idea for an open source project that needs funding, please go right ahead and submit your application today. Be sure to also take a look at what we've already published and see if you can use it in your own business or project. You'll find everything need at enaccess.org. If you want to be the first to know about any new work that we publish, follow us on LinkedIn or on Twitter, or subscribe to our email list. Thanks again for listening. Please go ahead and share this episode with a friend. If you found it useful and we will be back in your podcast feeds soon.