[FoRK] WSJ's Gomes on a new IT co-op

Rohit Khare Rohit at ICS.uci.edu
Tue Apr 13 14:29:17 PDT 2004

[This is intriguing -- an example of a new industry-wide R&D  
consortium, funded by "users," in a new guise... Fits Nicholas Carr's  
IT-doesn't-matter hypothesis, I suspect...Rohit]

slides, presumably from the launch:
(Google HTML cache)

couple pages on the wonders of AppTalk:

[Overall, I'm a bit skeptical, but it's at least *something* new in  
response to a maturing industry: a closed-open source community... no  
mention on slashdot yet though...]


Project Avalanche clears way for tech cooperation

4/12/04 10:29 AM
The Wall Street Journal

  Co-ops have been a fact of life in U.S. agriculture for decades, with  
farmers banding together to solve common problems. Now, a group of  
computer chiefs at some of America's biggest companies are trying to do  
the same thing with technology.

  If their Project Avalanche is a success, and it's hard to imagine it  
failing, it will be the biggest thing to hit the technology scene since  
open-source software like Linux. And just as with Linux, Avalanche  
threatens to be enormously disruptive to many of the tech industry's  
big players.

  Avalanche is the brainchild of Andrew Black, head of computer  
operations at Jostens Inc., the people who make class rings, and Scott  
Lien, who holds the same post for ePredix, which does employee testing.

  Both companies are in Minneapolis. Three years ago, the two men found  
themselves in the sort of gripe session common to their line of work.  
Why, they asked each other, were they writing such big checks to their  
software companies, but getting so little in return? Why were their  
in-house programming staffs writing the same sorts of custom programs  
written at thousands of other companies? If Detroit car makers can  
collaborate on research, why couldn't U.S. technology users?

  The problem, they decided, was an imbalance of power between  
technology companies and their customers. Project Avalanche is their  
way of restoring that balance.

  Avalanche is a legally constituted intellectual-property cooperative.  
Companies pay $30,000 a year to become members. They can then donate  
any in-house software they choose to the Avalanche library, with the  
project becoming the legal owner of the code. Project members get to  
use, free of charge, any of the other programs in the library.

  While just a few weeks out of the chute, Avalanche already has some  
impressive sponsors, including tier-one names like Best Buy, Cargill  
and Medtronic. The group has a board of directors and full-time CEO,  
Jay Hansen, a former IT consultant. Its Web site is  
avalanchecorporatetechnology.com. Maybe it will buy itself a shorter  
URL one of these days.

  Mr. Black says most of the past three years have been spent ironing  
out legal issues to immunize companies from the risks associated with  
either giving their software to Avalanche or using programs they get  
from it.

  One of the first software donations to Avalanche was from Best Buy. It  
is a piece of so-called plumbing software called AppTalk that allows  
programs to communicate with each other. It may not be sexy stuff, but  
it took Best Buy about 100 programmer-years to write it.

  John Schmidt, the Best Buy executive in charge of AppTalk, says his  
company was willing to give it away because it expects to benefit from  
the additional improvements made to the program from the others using  
it. Those improvements could also be donated back to the Avalanche  
library, a technique common in the open-source software world.

  While many of the programs donated to Project Avalanche will work with  
Linux, it isn't a precondition. Avalanche takes all kinds of software,  
including programs that work with Windows. Members, says Mr. Hansen,  
aren't expected to give away any in-house software that gives their  
companies a unique competitive advantage.

  So what exactly is so threatening about this effort to big software  
companies? Just listen to the plans the men have for the group.

  Suppose, says Mr. Lien, that some Avalanche members chipped in money  
to create custom software to run their call centers? Any other  
Avalanche member would then be able to use the code -- and wouldn't  
have to write checks for millions of dollars to Siebel Systems, which  
makes much of its money on these sorts of programs.

  Or, asks Mr. Black, what if Avalanche members collaborated on a  
foolproof collection of open-source programs that could be used on  
their corporate desktops instead of the Windows and Office combinations  
from Microsoft? Mr. Black grumbles about having to pay Microsoft  
hundreds of dollars a year per employee for programs like word  
processing and spreadsheets, which he says should be commodities by  

  The men say U.S. companies have all sorts of talented programmers on  
staff, and could easily match, or exceed, the quality of the code from  
the best-known software companies. Their ultimate goal is to allow  
companies to spend less of their time and money on fairly generic  
software, much of which brings no specific business advantage, and more  
working on projects that will bring clear benefits to their business.

  Because large corporations like those in Avalanche are the biggest  
customers of software companies, any shift like this would have  
enormous repercussions. The last thing any company wants is to have its  
customers banding together.

  As residents of Minnesota, Mr. Black and Mr. Lien know their snow, and  
they say the name of their project was carefully chosen. An avalanche  
isn't only unstoppable, it also either buries everything in its path or  
carries everything along. Software companies may soon be needing to  
choose their fate.

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