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Infrastructure Software
Scott Goering  |  April 10, 2017
How Open Source Ate Samsung, and Lessons for Smaller Companies

Powered by Battery recently sat down with Ibrahim Haddad, a vice president of R&D and head of the Open Source Group at technology giant Samsung. In this role, Haddad oversees all the company’s open-source initiatives and frequently interacts with smaller companies that are also using open source. Before joining Samsung, Haddad worked for companies including Motorola, Palm and Hewlett-Packard; he was also the director of technology and alliances for the Linux Foundation from 2010 to 2013.

Here is an edited version of our interview.

Powered by Battery (PBB): So tell us about your role at Samsung.

Ibrahim Haddad (IH): I joined Samsung in February 2013. I was actually the number-one hire charged with building an open-source organization—establishing a corporate function across all of Samsung’s business units to oversee open source. The idea was that software is a strategic asset, and we needed to drive more collaboration around open source. I was hired to lead that group, to basically do the hiring and be responsible not just for the strategy and direction, but also for the relationships with business units, and to figure out where we could inject our resources to have the best outcomes.

PBB: What’s happened since you first joined?

IH: It’s been over four years now on this journey. My responsibilities have definitely grown as we’ve moved into some different directions. Today, in terms of the focus of the group, we’re (first) responsible for open source engineering efforts. That’s one bucket. Another we are focusing on is relationships with open-source foundations. That includes the Linux Foundation. Finally, we do a lot of advising internally. Probably 15% of my time is talking to other executives inside Samsung.

PBB: What about conducting compliance audits on open-source projects? Does that fall under your role?

IH: We support our open-source compliance efforts, but we don’t actually perform any compliance work. I feel like I’m the 911 call center for compliance, serving as the go-to person when issues arise. Also on the M&A side, when we do a deal and there’s open-source software in the acquired company, we help with the due diligence. Overall, everything is done with the goal of product enablement in mind; we are focused on enabling open-source development across all of our products.

PBB: What has Samsung’s experience and history with open source been? Was the company an early adopter of open-source technology?

IH: That’s a bit hard to answer because I was not with Samsung that early on. But I’ve done some research and found that the journey of open source within Samsung Electronics started in the early 2000s. As an additional data point, in 2000 IBM announced it was investing a billion dollars in Linux. So Samsung started integrating open-source software in the early 2000s. It was basically embedded Linux in some targeted products, like PDAs (personal digital assistants) and other small communications devices.

That evolved in the following years to the point where around 2005, Samsung executives realized that we needed to move away from proprietary software, and we needed a better development environment, plus better development tools. They needed to find a (new) app ecosystem. These factors drove them to go all-out on Linux at that point. Around 2005 and 2006 was when TVs and other appliances started to appear with Linux in them. This was really the period when open source consumption became ingrained within Samsung.

PBB: Was there another evolution after that in Samsung’s embrace of open source?

IH: Yes. At that time, the company started to evolve upwards from being a simple consumer of open-source code into a contributor to open-source projects. This started around 2008, and it began in a very small and targeted way with a few key products. Then, we had Android and Linux phones, home appliances, and a growing number of products powered by open source. A couple of years later, we established Tizen (an open-source operating system). I joined the company in 2013. That was a watershed moment in the way Samsung thought about open source. Executives came to the realization that we needed to have a dedicated team working on open source in order to do it well.

PBB: Going back to your earlier comment, how does your group’s expertise come into play when Samsung is evaluating acquisitions of smaller companies?

IH: That’s actually the smallest part of what we do, but an interesting part. We do development every day, and work with open-source technology every day.

PBB: But in general, are there examples of best practices, in terms of open-source software development, or use, that companies should follow? What steps should they take to avoid compliance or regulatory issues, and set themselves up for a positive M&A outcome?

IH: Open-source software is eating the software world. If you look at any kind of company in any kind of industry, in finance or telecom or healthcare, transportation or whatever, the majority of the code they deploy is open source. Everybody is trying to figure out ways to leverage that open-source code and build differentiation on top. Nobody wants to re-create the wheel.  So it’s hard to come across a transaction today where the company is NOT using open source.

How can a company make it easier for the acquirer? There are two big things. First, start thinking about open-source compliance early. Basically create a point person for compliance. This is so the people involved know they need to be careful about this and that, they need to document what they’re doing. We need to know what software components they’re using in order to make any kind of decision. Second, it’s important to provide some basic training for developers, to make sure there is some level of awareness on the part of developers and new employees about compliance. If you have a company coming to buy you, you need to be able to demonstrate that you’re aware of open-source compliance. You should be able to show them an open-source bill of materials: all the components you’re using, the licenses, where you got them from, etc. That’s basically the kind of open source due diligence we do as a buyer. So if you’ve already gone through that exercise in a startup, the acquisition process becomes much faster. One key piece of advice I give is to know the code, and know where the value is. A lot of the value is just integration, with IP added on top of that. However, you need to know what must be done to comply with open source licenses regardless of where the value resides.

PBB: So is compliance becoming more of a top-of-mind concern for startups using open source? Or is this still something most people aren’t thinking about early enough?

IH: It depends. There are some companies where they clearly haven’t thought about it, and we have to do a lot of back-and-forth with them. Then there are companies that show up with an Excel file and say, here’s exactly where open source is being used, what the licenses are, and if we’ve made any modifications to the code. Some of them are very prepared and very good. Others, much less so.

PBB: Are there specific open-source licenses that are easier to deal with than others?

IH: We don’t have licenses that we are prohibited to use. It all depends on the use case. There are some companies that avoid various licenses. They prefer Apache or other licenses. It all comes down to how we’ll be using the code. If there’s a possibility other software components may be affected by post-closing integration of the new components, then you have a new obligation. The issue usually isn’t a specific license; it’s how it’s being used, and how it interacts with other components of the stack.

PBB: Have you seen deals fall through because the way the code is being used is bad, based on the license?

IH: Well, typically if we come across a lot of pre- and post-acquisition action items, we help the company set up a process and policies, and provide the relevant training. We offer a lot of help.

PBB: So compliance in some cases comes after the acquisition?

IH: It’s not mutually exclusive. There are sometimes conditions where some specific issue needs to be solved for the deal to go through. Those get solved more quickly.

PBB: Can you talk more about how Samsung is using open-source internally?

IH: From the Samsung side, it’s actually pretty hard to find a product that doesn’t use open-source today. If you go to Best Buy and want to buy a fridge, or a computer, or a printer, or a washing machine, or a robotic vacuum, all of these products have open source in them. It’s really hard to find one that doesn’t, particularly if it has a screen or network connection. Done the traditional way, this would require Samsung to leverage a lot of internal engineering resources to create that software from scratch. Our position is, why would we create a new piece of software or Web engine if one already exists? We can contribute to the open-source project and make it more suitable for us.

All of that enables better software in general, and frees up resources to have more and better ideas. Using open-source, and collaborating with other companies, helps us innovate more, improves time to market, and lowers costs. And that all drives product enablement for the consumer.

PBB: Ibrahim, thanks so much for sharing these insights!

IH: You’re welcome!


The information contained herein is based solely on the opinions of Scott Goering and nothing should be construed as investment advice. This material is provided for informational purposes, and it is not, and may not be relied on in any manner as, legal, tax or investment advice or as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy an interest in any fund or investment vehicle managed by Battery Ventures or any other Battery entity.

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