What leadership in software means today

June 16, 2014 — by Phil Winters

It is indeed a well-deserved honor that KNIME’s leadership has been re-confirmed in Gartner’s famous ‘Magic Quadrant’ for analytic platforms – thanks in large part to the KNIME customers who acted as references. But is this just another award or an indicator of something much more significant? I think the latter.

Back in the late 1970s we started seeing the first companies focused on software for manipulating and analyzing data. I remember those heady times well: I was in the computing department of the University of Oklahoma, helping fellow students move from pure programming languages to the new, whiz-bang 4GL languages that could do so much for you. ‘Analytic platforms’ did not exist. The concepts of ‘open source’* and ‘communal development’ were not yet even a twinkle in anyone’s eye!

What that meant was that companies had to hire programmers – and lots of them – to develop their packages. ‘Proprietary software’ was the order of the day, not just because it ensured a revenue stream but because it was really complex, compiled code. I still remember when SAS made the industry-shaking decision to buy the Lattice C compiler to build executables that would work on different platforms.

The interesting thing about the Gartner Magic Quadrants is that – if you reflect on the years of ‘analytics’, ‘decision support’ and all those other buzzwords – many players have come and gone, but only two ever consistently achieved leadership status: SAS and IBM (formerly SPSS).

Mostly because there was no choice. The expanse of software offered by both companies grew massive over the years, and anyone trying to start a traditional proprietary software business needed a huge kick-start to be able to play in that league.

And then, along came open source and community development to change the game completely. Although the requirements for depth and breadth and vision are even more stringent than ever – Gartner’s extremely thorough and detailed analysis shows that – somehow, small-but-profitable KNIME, with its ~20 employees, has not only made it to the leadership quadrant but surpassed the 800-pound gorilla – in the category vision! Java, Eclipse, R, Weka and numerous other community contributions comprise the not-so-secret ingredients that make KNIME so powerful.  

I think the clincher, though, is in KNIME’s approach: while the platform stays open, the revenue (because folks DO have to eat!) comes from optional commercial extensions that provide productivity and collaboration features. In other words: you really never have to buy anything. However, KNIME can make it worth your while to do so despite yourself.  

There was a promising competitor that started out with a similar open source concept, but the day after it first made it to the leadership quadrant (at the same time as KNIME), it dropped the open source model, calling its new approach ‘business source’**. A shame, really! I was looking forward to having an open source confederate to help goad and prod the big guys, but now that company is just one more proprietary software provider running in the wolf pack.

Why is this important? My specialty is taking the customer perspective, and what I’ve learned working with many organizations is that the customer is seizing control and creating  new expectations (read: demands on vendors). They are pushy, inquisitive, and they absolutely do NOT want to talk to a contracts or payment department just so they can take a test drive. But that’s the beauty of the KNIME model. Just try it! Download it, extend it, add your own special sauce, take a look at the source code if you need to understand more, and don’t register if you don’t want to. KNIME is redefining leadership from the customer’s perspective, and I fully expect it to join those other greats – like Cloudera with Hadoop and Red Hat with Linux – in maintaining its leadership. I, for one, am looking forward to the big battle of the titans because, in the end, the users will benefit.

38 years of data whispering – 25 of which as an executive at SAS – have earned Phil Winters the moniker “the Father of Customer Intelligence”. He’s a renowned thought leader, keynote speaker and author championing the customer perspective – and was so convinced by using KNIME that he’s now on the company’s executive board.

* The term “open source” was first used at a strategy session of a group of developers held on February 3, 1998 in Palo Alto, California, at the founding meeting of what has become the Open Source Initiative.   

** Even the inventor of the Business Source model, Monty Widenius, says in his famous article (Introducing “Business Source”: The Future of Corporate Open Source Licensing?): “Business source is not open source.”

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