Free, as in refills?

Last week, I had the good fortune of eating lunch with a group of Linux-savvy O'Reilly employees and author Sam Hiser. We were supposed to be talking about OpenOffice.org, but we kept getting caught up bashing Microsoft. One of the points raised was how Microsoft is currently working on a way to make their products not work with BlackBerry. Why would people want to buy a product that keeps them locked in that way? I'm always fond of food analogies, and even fonder of my morning caffeine, so here's an analogy between coffee and the current status of open source technologies.

Amy Kucharik

My coffeemaker at home is pretty simple to use. Just about every coffeemaker I've seen, except for the programmable ones, works in a similar, intuitive way. You don't need to have any training or read an instruction manual to figure it out. You measure the coffee into a filter, put it in the basket, add water, and press the button to brew. Whether your coffee choice is Folger's crystals, hazelnut-flavored, or fresh-ground, estate-grown gourmet, it doesn't get much more complicated.

I have always been dubious about those coffeemakers that use the little pre-measured packets or pods that you pop in -- I think some offices use them in favor of letting employees measure their own coffee. I'm not talking about the full pot packs, but the tiny one-cup pods that can only be used in the designated machine. I don't know what they're called, but for the purpose of this example, I'll call them "Sparky."

Why, I wonder, other than the monkey-could-use-it simplicity, would somebody actually want to buy one of these Sparky coffee makers? For one thing, you can only buy your coffee from Sparky. So, if your local grocery store doesn't stock Sparky, you have to go all over town (or order online) to buy coffee. If Sparky raises their prices, you have to spend more money. And if you don't like Sparky's flavors of coffee, well, too bad.

Another issue for me is that I like to experiment with my coffee brewing. Sometimes I'll sprinkle cinnamon or sugar on top of the grounds. Sometimes I'll use more coffee than normal if I want a very strong flavor, and so on. But that's not possible with Sparky.

Now, imagine a world in which Sparky had cornered the coffee -- and coffeemaker -- market. Suppose very few people know how to measure their own coffee. If you try to get them to look beyond Sparky, they'll say, "But wait! You mean I have to scoop the grounds myself? What if I measure wrong? What if I spill? Won't that require extra training? How will I know what kind of coffee to buy?" And so on.

It sounds ludicrous, but I think it's similar to the current perception of open source. People are afraid to go for a technology that isn't pre-packaged and doled out by their proprietary vendor (such as Microsoft), so they stay locked in. It may make things easier on them in some ways, but they end up paying higher prices. Not only that, but the Sparkys of the world can develop a monopoly that edges out smaller companies, even if they make a better product. Moreover, it puts us in a defensive state so that we keep letting our fear and loathing of Sparky distract us from other key issues (like development).

What do you think? Are companies better off using prepackaged, vendor-specific technology? Or can they look beyond messy coffee grounds and find a better way with open source? Drop me a line and tell me your thoughts on open source and DIY coffee.

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