How to Avoid the Pitfalls of OSS Sharecropping

Firstly, what is Digital Sharecropping? Nicholas Carr coined the term Digital Sharecropping all the way back in 2006, citing the phenomenon where, “One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few.” In other words, the landholder or platform owner (eg Facebook) is able to derive the majority of the financial benefits of the toil of the platform users (eg content creators). In isolation, the platform users don’t deliver much value, but they do in aggregate. Yet the platform owner potentially derives the majority of the aggregated commercial benefit.

But you’re probably wondering what Digital Sharecropping has to do with OSS/BSS. First let me ask you the question:

Who are the Landholders / Platform Owners of OSS and BSS Industries?

Let’s answer that question by taking a Dickensian look at OSS of past, present and future.

OSS Past: The OSS and BSS of the past were often built using third-party tools such as Oracle Forms, AutoCAD, CORBA, SNMP collection libraries, various GIS, programming languages such as C++, etc.

OSS Present: The OSS, and particularly the BSS, of today are increasingly being built on cloud environments, Salesforce and similar.

OSS Future: In future, we’re likely to use even more of the hyperscaler tools, leveraging their pre-packaged AI, mixed reality, data ETL, visualisation and other tools. The benefits of SaaS and subscription revenue models to software providers means that there’s a likelihood that many more platform plays will be built for OSS vendors to use in future.

What are the Benefits of using Third-Party Platforms?

Put simply, using third-party tools can be a very effective way for OSS vendors to deliver products to market faster and cheaper. The reality is that most OSS companies don’t have the time or requisite skills to be able to create some of these tools (eg AI). OSS vendors  get to stand on the shoulders of giants!

So what’s all the fuss I’m making about this then? The answer can be quickly summarised in the phrase – Locus of Control.

The Pitfalls of Relying on Third-Party Platforms

The dangers of being heavily reliant on specific third-party platforms are varied and numerous. The following factors apply to OSS/BSS vendors and their network operator customers alike:

  • Roadmap Alignment – when you first choose to align with a landowner (third-party product / platform), first you decide on the product of best alignment, then you design your own product to fit within the constraints of all that it offers. However, over time the third-party is making their own roadmap decisions. Unless you’re a keystone customer of theirs, they’re probably making architectural decisions that have no alignment with where you want to take your own product
  • Refactoring – the landowner is probably making their own enhancements to their platform. In some cases, those changes mean your OSS also needs resources assigned to be refactored, taking away from the resources required to make enhancements to your own product
  • Price changes – the landowner can choose to make changes to their pricing structure at any time. What might have been a profitable long-term contract between OSS vendor and customer can easily become loss-making if the landowner decides to raise their fees, either through direct price increases or restructuring the cost model. If your product is tightly coupled to theirs, you don’t have the option of quickly transitioning to an alternate supplier. As Nicholas also described, “the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy.” The platform players are in a position of power where they can strip out all the benefits of the cash economy, leaving OSS sharecroppers with only the attention economy (including the support of OSS products for their customers, the network operators)
  • Reputation (bug fix) – when you’re reliant on “black box” functionality supplied by others, where you’re unable to control the inner workings of that functionality, you don’t have end-to-end control over issues customers have with your OSS products. Your reputation is inextricably linked to the reliability, scalability, etc of the platform you rely upon
  • Change of Ownership (Ophaning) – if the landholder decides to sell, there’s the possibility that the platform you rely upon could be obsoleted, switched to their own alternative product or just left to languish (see next point)
  • Change in Support – landholder support comes in many different forms:
    • Functional Obsolescence – No additional functionality or roadmap is assigned
    • Professional Services – No professional services are provided to assist with ongoing development of your product
    • Patching – No patches or security fixes are supplied. This could also include an ability to support other third-party software dependencies (eg latest edition of Java)
    • Service Levels – Changes in support models and SLAs
  • Loss of Relevance – Some OSS today have a reliance on a choice of platform they made decades ago. Millions of developer hours have been invested into the product and that platform since. However, there can be structural shifts that mean the platform, technology or processes are no longer preferred practices. An example could be the CAD drawings (and A1 print-outs) that were used by field techs in the past have begun to be replaced by interactive applications viewed on smartphones or tablets. 

So, how to avoid the Pitfalls of Digital Sharecropping?

The benefits of leveraging third-party platforms are too useful to ignore. However, lock-in / dependence avoidance strategies should also be considered. The secret is to spend most of your effort building the assets that you have direct control over. For example, rather than building your code / logic within the platform’s tools, look to extricate that logic into your own modules, microservices, etc.

To follow the old adage, don’t build on rented land… which reminds me of a story a Sydney taxi driver once shared. He described in great detail how he’d invested $250,000 and years of his own effort building extensions to his home (right down to the placement of concrete gargoyles). However, my jaw hit the floor of his taxi when he finished his story with, “… I hope my landlord doesn’t mind!!” 


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