If the story of the last two decades was about large American software companies constructing near-monopolies through the clever combination of proprietary licenses and vendor lock-in, the trend going forward is the unraveling of those monopolies as open-source developers learn to leverage the cloud. I recently spoke with Brian Joseph, CEO of open-source groupware provider Zarafa, about this shift, among other things.  Here's what he had to say.

Zarafa offers a commercial, open-source alternative to groupware suites like Microsoft Exchange, with its main product available under the Affero license.  The company, based in Delft, Holland, has boasted recently about major growth in European markets, and probably offers the open-source product best positioned to compete with deeply entrenched proprietary alternatives.

Zarafa has already established a solid foothold in its niche, but in a channel which comprised the core of cloud computing before anyone even talked about the cloud, the company can expect to see its niche evolve rapidly over coming months and years.  To get a better sense of how Zarafa plans to proceed going forward, my discussion with Joseph centered on three main points: the open-source aspect, broader expansion into overseas markets and, of course, what the cloud means for his company.  These were his answers...

How Important Is Open-Source to Your Company and Product?


While cautioning that the open-source licensing of Zarafa's software is "not the most important" factor in its success, Joseph emphasized the unique selling points that the product enjoys vis-à-vis proprietary competitors because of its open-source nature.  Above all, the ability of customers to tweak the software freely provides an advantage wholly unavailable from most of Zarafa's competitors.

And while it may not be news to most observers that open-source licensing can pay off with users who want to customize the software they purchase, Joseph pointed to this characteristic as a particularly important one in a market where many organizations have quite specific groupware needs, and are large enough to justify constructing their own infrastructure rather than accepting a prepackaged solution that they can't tweak.  Zarafa's open-source license means it can be used as a core for building a customized system catered to the demands of a university, corporation or other enterprise not satisfied with the out-of-the-box offerings of a closed-source product.

How Do National Barriers Affect Your Business?


Noting that Zarafa's focus thus far has been largely--though not exclusively--on Europe, I was curious how national or regional lines of demarcation play into the company's strategy.

While quick to point out that the company has some partners in the United States, Joseph admitted that most of its growth so far has been in Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil and France. He attributed Zarafa's lower profile in North America in part to the saturation of that region by Microsoft, IBM-Lotus and other long-entrenched players in the groupware world.

He added, however, that potential American partners which have traditionally clung to closed-source products are growing more and more eager to explore open-source alternatives--"and when you go to open-source, we win."

From my perspective, the regionalization of Zarafa's focus is worth noting because it reflects the varying degrees of success that open-source solutions have so far enjoyed in different parts of the world.  Perhaps because of the deeply established presence of closed-source competitors in North American markets, that region has been the least responsive to open-source ventures in recent years.  But expect that to change.

Tell Me About Zarafa and the Cloud...


In a real sense, Zarafa's market was the cloud before anyone had figured out what the cloud meant, since groupware software has long provided functionality central to any definition of cloud computing. Unlike other companies which have struggled over the last couple of years to figure out what the cloud is and how to adapt to it, then, cloud computing was somewhat of a natural fit for Zarafa.

There's always room for growth, however.  Asked how Zarafa plans to harness the cloud going forward, Joseph stressed the flexibility that the company's product provides for building private clouds.  The cloud makes it much easier and more cost-efficient to host private infrastructures, and Zarafa's open-source code, Joseph reiterated, represents a natural choice for organizations interested in constructing customized infrastructures.

Closing Thoughts


There's not much add to Joseph's comments, as his remarks are clear and self-evident enough. What is worth observing, however, are the ways in which the Zarafa example highlights the dynamism promised by the combination of open-source code with the shift to cloud computing--a dynamism which, in turn, poses deeply upsetting threats to the traditional platforms on which closed-source software developers operate.

By making server computing-power simpler, more affordable and more flexible, the cloud provides an impetus for software to change in the same ways. Proprietary solutions cease to be so attractive when the cloud makes it more feasible for organizations to build and host customized solutions that meet their specific needs, rather than accepting as-is what third-parties offer to them.

This isn't to say long-established proprietary products will disappear. But it does mean the landscape will be shifting in major ways over the long term, even in the United States and other markets where many large organizations have traditionally displayed a reluctance to abandon the closed-source solutions they were made to know and love during the client-server age.

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