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