Guest Column | November 20, 2014

Top 9 Benefits Of Open Sourcing Your Proprietary Medtech Source Code

By Shahid Shah, president & CEO, Netspective Communications
Follow me on Twitter @ShahidNShah


Last month, I described techniques to help regulatory teams overcome their fear of using open source software (OSS) in medical devices and digital health applications. While the use of OSS in medical device designs is growing, the opportunity to share that device software with others is something very few medical device companies have really considered. Even Microsoft recently open sourced its .NET infrastructure to gain some of the benefits that I outline below. Because medical device software is often very specialized and generally considered a small market, it has remained primarily proprietary and closed source.

This article will discuss the benefits medical device makers and health IT vendors can reap when opening the source code to their software. Almost any software that is embedded and doesn’t end up generating significant direct revenue on its own makes sense to open source. When your colleagues tell you that there’s not much benefit to open sourcing, remind them of what Microsoft recently did with .NET. Here’s why Microsoft and others choose to open source:

1. Visibility: When you “open” your software, its visibility will increase because it is not proprietary. The press, competitors, partners, and others will all talk about it without thinking they are promoting a specific company. If the strategy is approached properly, the software has a chance to become ubiquitous without you having to spend millions on marketing. Note how much positive press Microsoft has recently received about a product that has been around for more than a decade.

2. Ubiquity and ecosystem: If promoted correctly, open sourcing can create almost unstoppable power as it picks up rapid momentum and establishes a real ecosystem. Mindshare is paramount and publicity matters, so the visibility helps create a dynamic environment around it. Other competitors and partners can be encouraged to build products around newly open-sourced software without fear of competition (just coopetition).

3. Consulting, training, and education: If you can open source your software, it will be discussed in training classes, consultants will use it for examples, and it can be used to develop best practices around the software. Many successful open source products are taught in universities, colleges, and professional degree programs because the lack of licensing hurdles makes downloading and teaching software much easier.

4. Design discipline: All future changes to open source software will be public and open to the community — helping create a design discipline that will establish credibility and ensure utility for a long period of time. Because open source software is embraced by more developers than just the ones inside your organization, you will find that your software engineering community with demand higher quality. That demand will often come with external assistance as well – in the form of external architects, designers, and technical documentation specialists that help create better and more resilient designs.

5. Building a community: You can start having real conversations about your products by open sourcing. You can engage a broad group of users, developers, partners, and even competitors in that discussion. Building a community means that you will have more people helping improve the software for you than just your internal product management colleagues. Customers are more likely to help improve community-driven products rather than proprietary ones.

6. Engineering help: By opening up your code, you can have other companies help design future improvements and updates to designs that you started. Improvements can come from anywhere. Innovations won’t be limited to your firm. When IBM open sourced its Eclipse integrated development environment (IDE) it was able to use hundreds of engineers outside of its firewalls to help improve Eclipse. When Internet router and cable TV set top box companies open sourced their proprietary software, they instantly increased their engineering team sizes.

7. Guidance for a proprietary version: If you want both a “community version” and a “proprietary version,” you can use the community version to help define and fine-tune the proprietary one. This is a very powerful way of using the “freemium” business model, where you offer a free version that anyone can use and a “premium” version over which you have greater control.

8. Risk reduction: By open sourcing, you can help spread the risk of further development and testing. If there are any issues in the software and a community around the OSS has been nurtured, the community can help find and correct defects and issues more quickly.

9. Commoditize competition: If you have a competitor that you want to marginalize in the marketplace, you can commoditize their products by open sourcing and having everyone build on your standards instead of theirs.

Open sourcing your software is not easy to do, and it’s not for the faint of heart, but it can have significant benefits, as outlined above. Assuming you’re ready to do it, though, where do you start?

First, consider what the business goals are for open sourcing. Are you looking for market growth, competitor commoditization, or something else? If possible, come up with measurements to determine how to achieve those goals. (Goals should be realistic and measurable.) Then, choose an executive that will make decisions about approving open source activities and a “community manager” within your company that will manage the move from internal proprietary to external open source.

Now comes the most important part — budget the resources necessary. Open sourcing software is not cheap, but it is still affordable, especially when you account for some reduction in direct sales and marketing spending once you’ve built a nice community around the product. As soon as you’ve got the personnel and budget in place, pick a license model and prepare source code or algorithms for open sourcing. (Look for other IP or code you rely on and make sure it’s friendly to open source.)

You can then create a website to promote the open source product (there are many existing ones), create a public relations (PR) campaign around the open source strategy, create buzz within the open source community, and help them publicize the strategy for you. As soon as possible, begin to work with other open source projects to see if there is a way you can implement your IP with theirs. Finally, create a partnership and promotion strategy to encourage the use of your open source code in other products.

Shahid Shah is an open source advocate, chairman of the OSEHRA Strategic Advisory Board, and an award-winning medical device hardware / software design coach with 25 years of technology strategy and engineering experience. You can reach him via Twitter or email.