I'm always amazed to find just how efficiently Google is able to answer my questions on just about any topic. This time I searched for "open source collaboration software" and gained a number of new insights into the competitive field of OpenACS. I remember how when I was working for ArsDigita a lot of people would wonder "So the ACS is very cool, but does anybody know what alternatives are out there?". I remember being slightly disturbed by the fact that nobody could give a satisfactory answer to the question. Well, maybe two years ago competition was scarce, but apparently today the world is different.
In the Communications Category at SourceForge there is no shortage of Collaboration software. Here is a small sample (mostly from the two first pages out of 45 with the most active projects) of software with functional overlap with the OpenACS:
- Groupware: PhpCollab, phpCrystal, Moregroupware, PhpGroupware
- Task Management: Internet Task Management System, PHP Helpdesk
- Survey: phpEsp - Survey Application (7 developers)
The list clearly suggests that in the Open Source Groupware realm the PHP and MySQL technologies reign supreme. It seems to me most of those PHP based collaboration software projects tend to be more focused (less comprehensive) than the OpenACS, some are on hold, but others are flourishing. A for OpenACS very encouraging conclusion that I draw though is that a clear leader has yet to emerge in the Open Source groupware field. I find that amazing if you think about how long such software has been around now.
My Google search also brought me to The Open Source Groupware Category at the Open Directory (dmoz.org). Needless to say the OpenACS was missing from this category, and in fact was missing from any category at the Open Directory so I submitted it to a number of suitable categories.
Another intersting finding was collection of article and software that Grant Bowman - the editor of the dmoz category mentionied above - is maintaining. I sent him an email informing him about the OpenACS and dotLRN and I am curious to see what his reaction will be.
It seems to me Philip Greenspun and ArsDigita suffered from a technical hubris that led us to not only neglect marketing but also neglect software developed outside the company. We were mislead by premises along the lines of: 1) We have world-class developers and are technically superior to the rest of the industry, and 2) Our technical supremacy will sooner or later be apparent to the rest of the world, so we don't need to market ourselves, people will come to us. During the IT hype Philip was able to get away with this approach, and yes, Philip was a great evangelist and had a amazing talent for attracting highly skilled developers. Unfortunately technical hubris can come with a high price tag. ArsDigita failed to market itself in the corporate world and also failed at building up an Open Source community.
Eventhough this was a very small investigation, and eventhough I am very tired now that I am writing this, I will venture to draw some tentative conclusions. First of all I firmly belive that OpenACS is a *very* sophisticated and comprehensive platform that holds great promise and still stands up well to the competition. The recent push of dotLRN is very welcome and has helped raise the quality significantly of many of our most important applications. But, there are a lot of similar open source software brewing out there and I do *not* think that the OpenACS can maintain its lead unless we drastically start expanding our community of developers and clients. Such an expansion is not likely to happen as long as the rest of the world doesn't even know that the OpenACS exists. So then the non-trivial question beckons: which channels do we use to expose ourselves to the world, and who will have the time and energy to make this happen? I alone cannot answer this question but I hope that this posting will provoke some ideas and help stimulate the improvements that the OpenACS project needs if it is to thrive well into the future.