Technology history is littered with open systems – open source, open standards, open APIs, open systems, to name just a few. But what makes something really open in their context? Bear with me for a moment…

When Etrade open their doors back in the late 90s, getting money into their system was easy. They could take check and electronic funds transfers from an increasingly wide variety of banks. Getting money out of Etrade on the other hand was a trickier matter altogether. There were restrictions, limits, and what seemed like an endless series of walls. As a relatively early adopter, I found it rather frustrating.

During the dot-com bust when day traders took a major step back, questions on how to increase business were raised and the challenges of retaining customers who were active traders. One particular piece of feedback Etrade received was that customers were not happy about the limitations placed on getting money out of their system – it wasn’t open enough. True openness, however, was a scary prospect. Would billions of dollars in assets leave overnight if Etrade made it just as easy to move money out as they did to move money in?

After a lot of agony, they took the plunge and opened their doors. Really, truly, opened their doors. You could just as easily move things into their system as you could out. The plunge, as you might have figured out by now, paid off big time. Customers felt secure in knowing that they could get their money out of Etrade if they needed it, but the reality was that most people didn’t need their money to leave Etrade. However the simply comfort of it being open resulted in a boom in business and their total assets growing by many billions of dollars.

Going truly open was a big hit.

Back over in the world of open in technology… I see open a lot. The tricky part is figuring out what open really means for a given product, vendor, or design philosophy. But often, it is a necessary step so that surreptitious lock-in doesn’t occur.

Take for example early dips into the open source pool by Microsoft. If you read their open source license carefully, you would have noticed that the code wasn’t really open in the strictest sense. You could not modify it and pass the result on, even if you gave credit to Microsoft along the way. The code was open in name only. Fortunately for everyone, as Microsoft grew increasingly comfortable with open source and their place in the community, their license adjusted to find the happy medium that left both developers and Microsoft happy.

Similarly, as open cloud related technologies emerge, it is key to keep an towards how the developers have defined open. Is it open so long as it only works with the vendor’s tools? Is it open source? Is the API open? Is it something that the competition can pick up and add to? Is it the right kind of open for you?

Open matters in the cloud – but the key is to make sure that the word alone doesn’t merit your attention. Read the fine print and make sure that the definition of open is right for you.

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Open matters to me. You can hear me talk about how Citrix delivers an open, extensible cloud at Synergy Berlin. Click here for more information about the event.