Is Montreal set to become the El Dorado of Open Source?

Usually when a manifesto comes out of Montreal, it doesn’t mean good things. But Evan Prodromou, entrepreneur and founder of StatusNet, has penned a manifesto of sorts at NextMontreal, a call-to-arms for Montreal to distinguish herself as a future hub for Open Source startups.

Prodromou argues that for Montreal to become a legitimate technology city, she must become a leader in a field. Prodromou argues that if Montreal remains a second, third, or thirty-fifth fiddle to other, bigger cities, it will be hard to build the reputation, momentum, talent pool and investment power that these other cities have. It’s time to stand out and offer something that no other city can offer, he argues, and that something is Open Source.

From NextMontreal:

Montreal has the opportunity to be the best ecosystem in the world for Open Source software startups. We’ve got a good cadre of entrepreneurs here who’ve had experience with building Open Source companies. We have investors who’ve been through the process of investing in and nurturing Open Source companies. And we have the all-important talent pool of people who’ve been part of the process.

More importantly, there’s not another leading Open Source city on the globe. San Francisco and Boston have a few companies, but they’re definitely not hubs. The commercial Open Source landscape is spread much further across the globe – from London to Utah to Germany to Austin.

Most of all, Open Source commercialization is hard. Ask anyone involved in an Open Source company. It’s difficult to make the model work. There aren’t easy answers. Startup techniques for other kinds of businesses — investment and release strategies — don’t seem to apply as well. That means there’s a barrier to entry for other ecosystems — one we can exploit.

Not everyone is sold on Prodromou’s idea. Heri at Montreal Tech Watch has a bleaker view of Montreal’s potential to become the Mecca of Open Source, and in fact sees enthusiasm for Open Source dwindling in Montreal:

Now sadly, I have trouble finding an event that would focus on open source. There are of course events like WordPressMontreal, but they gather mostly bloggers and marketers interested on the business usage of WordPress, with no talks on the state of open source or its future. Open data events like WP-10 gets 15 or so attendees, while business events like StartupCampMontreal get 700 or so people. In three or two years, we have moved from discussions about the open source way and how to be open source to the applications of open source technologies, i.e. moving from open source as a state of mind to mentionning open source as merely a business advantage.

Three years ago, it was very easy to bump into an entrepreneur who’d want to take the idea of open source and hope to revolutionize with it the media industry, arts, or politics. Now, I meet every day more entrepreneurs hoping to build on the closed Apple stack than entrepreneurs knowing the difference between open source and Free Software. The bold idea of letting contributors shape collectively ideas isn’t there anymore, it’s merely one process in the UX designer tool box, amongst many others.

So without this “state of mind”, Montreal would never have a strong and resilient ecosystem, necessary before calling itself an open source startup hub. This state of mind pushes people to volunteer, organize and promote events celebrating open source code. It will spun a diversity of places dedicated to open source. It will encourage most local organizations to push innovative open source libraries.

Joseph Turian, in a post on Hacker News, takes a more measured stance:

I believe that Montreal has the most important element necessary to become an open-source startup hub, namely a lot of good talent. The language barrier exists, but is not strong enough that it has hindered any open-source efforts in Montreal (as far as I’ve seen).

The main hurdle to Montreal becoming any sort of startup hub is cultural. IMHO, Montrealais are not very opportunistic in starting and pursuing business.

I don’t think this is Montreal-specific in any way, many cities are like this.

I think people are inspired most of all by other people they meet in their day-to-day lives, not images on TV or in media. The current difficulty is that Montrealais have very few positive role models around them, to show how it’s done. In SF or NYC, you could easily move in a social circle that contains a successful business entrepreneur. “Oh, if he could do it, then I can do that too!” But most people in Montreal don’t happen to know a successful tech entrepreneur, not even as an acquaintance in passing.

So, what do you think Techvibes readers? Is Open Source the future for Montreal? Is Prodromou right? Too ambitious? Is he not seeing  all the facts? Or is this something that could work in the city of one hundred bell towers? Let us know what you think in the comments section.