“In the beginning… open source was pure and unadulterated. Over time, the idea of community-build software that is free and unfettered by sticky licensing terms and fees caught on with IT buyers, and the disruption of the old order began. Now, open source (Linux, Eclipse, Java, etc.) is mainstream, with many companies giving away valuable software for free and looking to gain profits from their largess.”
The True Nature of Open Source
About The Author
Ex-programmer, ex-editor in chief at OSNews.com, now a visual artist/filmmaker.
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2007-04-12 1:46 ambutters
The author meant that a vendor can enhance their open source project with proprietary add-ons that are only available to commercial licensees. It the added features are compelling, then people will pay for it while the open source community works on their own implementation. Once it is re-implemented, the vendor would need to come up with some new ideas to attract commercial licensees.
Proprietary code doesn’t prevent commodification. It merely slows it down. The only ways to prevent the commodification of software is through patents, and patents limit a vendor’s ability to drive standards.
The community often provides high-quality documentation and outstanding support infrastructure, but it doesn’t guarantee either. This is where commercial services come into play. If you only need reasonable assurance that help is out there, then community support is fine. But if you need to be able to get someone on the line and yell at them when your server goes down, then no wiki will suffice. The community provides the technology and the vendors provide the guarantee.
There are a number of proven OSS business models:
1) Sell proprietary add-ons to open source software (to the extent the license permits)
2) Dual-license your software and sell GPL exceptions to proprietary software vendors
3) Provide guaranteed support services for open source software
4) Provide web services based on open source software
5) Sell hardware devices based on open source software
2007-04-12 4:58 amTechGeek
Not to mention the whole information angle. There is an awful lot to know about open source technologies. SOmeone has to learn it, teach it, write about it. Corporate training and education is booming right now.
Plus, you can build software solutions that you sell as a service. Such as security auditing. Tools are free to you , you just have to be smart enough to know how to use them. Many companies just contract out employees as rent-a-geek. There are lots of ways to make money with open source. Its just not a guarantee.
2007-04-12 8:40 pmichi
Whatever. I’m charging for open-source software (actually my company charges the clients, and I get paid for developing it).
In a perfect world Winblows would be open source and Linuks would be closed source.
> Except you can’t charge for open-source software; someone else would just release a “free” version
Just because someone chooses to make your software available at no cost does not mean that you can’t charge people to obtain a copy of your software from you, it just means that you don’t have a monopoly on that software. You may still charge any fair price for your software.
>if not multiple competing versions which dilute and weaken the market.
I don’t see how this is any different to the proprietary software world.
> And the starter-drug model of releasing the software for free and charging for documentation and support doesn’t work in the age of wikis.
I don’t know about you, but in places where I have worked, support was used for having someone to blame when something goes wrong with a program. Sure support information may be freely available, but sometimes it’s easier to call someone and have them walk you through the process.
The way we access information is changing. The Web was just the beginning. Any company that deals in the production, distribution, organization, manipulation, or consumption of information is watching their business transform right before their eyes.
The way we communicate is changing. Email was just the beginning. We have the power to self-organize. We have the tools to collaborate. We realize that we are as similar as we are different.
This is the true nature of open source. Yeah, it’s about freedom, choice, and empowerment. But it’s more generally about society and its newfound ability to transcend the producer/consumer relationship. Open source software is not competing with Microsoft. That’s incredibly small-minded. Open source is changing the fabric of society and challenging our preconceptions about economics and politics.
I’m 24 years old. My grandparents’ generation was sent to war for the politics of the nation state. My parents’ generation was put to work for the economics of big business. My generation is being brought together by the connectivity of the social network.
The way we connect is changing. Open source software is just the beginning.
Edited 2007-04-12 06:51
2007-04-12 9:54 amSReilly
It has been said, time and again, that the very nature of information is free. With the rise of the internet, this maxim is turning out to be more true than most people imagined.
Our parents generation did not have names for concepts like intellectual property or proprietary formats and piracy had a different meaning. Protocols where standard when all you had was direct contact, phone or snail mail and if you wanted something, you bought it at the store. Suddenly, almost all of this has turned on it’s ear.
For example, take the music industry. For as long as the ‘Big 5’ have existed, people bought songs via a physical medium for personal use or for broadcast, and piracy was never larger than a few enthusiast making mixed tapes or recording off the radio. Now, more and more people are downloading music and ripping the CDs they already have and many no longer want the physical media. Why have a bulky collection of 500 CDs when an iPod is smaller and can be plugged into a HiFi or entertainment system?
Of course this poses problems for the music industry as, in a very short space of time, it invalidated they’re traditional revenue stream. But the biggest problem the Music industry faces is not the lack of records being sold nor the light social stigma attached to piracy but the fact that they are unable to tap into this revenue stream without significantly changing they’re entire structure.
Many have argued that this is the price to be paid from having made a profit from limiting the dissemination of information in the first place. Looking at the current situation faced by such business models, I have to say it looks like those people may very well be right.
You are young, and have much to learn.
2007-04-12 1:58 pmMorin
> You are young, and have much to learn.
Then share with us your wisdom.
An arms manufacturer announces that it has run into a ticklish problem developing its new anti-personel cluster bomb and so will now open-source the development of the weapon in order to obtain some fresh input and really valid data from the “community”.
Sounds like a bad joke? But that’s the level of intellectual engagement this article implies. Open source here is seen simply as a way of lowering your cost of production, obtaining extra man years and expertise for free, and providing right-on credentials for persuasive marketing campaigns.
It is never questioned that the “community” will help. And what the “community” consists of is never questioned, either.
Well, the community consists of individuals leading their own lives and pursuing their own interests. And, this being IT, such individuals are likely to have thought a lot more carefully about the genesis and ownership of software than your average Joe.
It seems to be rather optimistic to think that when asked the “community” will leave its brain at the door in order to help out any fat bastard hoping to cut a few corners on his way to the Learjet and a Polynesian island or three by forty.
Those who’ve made the most valuable contributions to open source have done so for things they believe in and only secondarily for the money, imho, though they deserve every cent of an excellent salary. And the values they believe in aren’t really very likely to coincide with those of big business. Long may that continue.
2007-04-12 11:41 ammoondevil
Sorry for being a bit cynical here but my experience develop software on the IT for big corporations says exactly that.
They only support open source because it is free.
Exactly the same as having last year university students doing project work under the disguise of university project.
I’ve been in enough projects to know what this is unfortunately true.
2007-04-12 1:36 pmTechGeek
Open source is a two way street. Big corporations are also dumping a lot of resources into building the community up. As long as they treat the community right, they will be treated to free development. Let them turn on the community though and watch out. Lets take XFree86 for example. It was pretty much standard in every distro until the developer went against the community. Well the community in turn removed XFree86 and replaced it with Xorg. The same can happen to any big corp that gets too big for its britches. The reason this works is that the community owns the IP. Anyone can reuse GPL software. So the good and will of the many always wins out over the wants of the few.
The biggest problem is that the GPL is the most common open source license. Because it limits the freedom of the developers so severely, only those few companies that subscribe to it’s philosophy can participate. The only way to make it work if you want to maintain some level of proprietary software is to operate your company in the traditional business model then dual license your code. This allows you to USE the open source community to gain market share and to encourage that your file formats become standardized, but you can’t use anyone else’s GPL code. This may not seem bad, but if the dream of open source is that all of society benefits then they/we need to drop the GPL and go with a much more free license like BSD or MIT, or even releasing thing into the public domain.
The best way for open source to excel is to stop thinking of proprietary as evil. Most companies would adopt more open standards and provide support to library projects if they can keep control of their own applications and this would allow for a greater cooperation on standards and encourage more companies to contribute to open source.
2007-04-12 2:44 pmtwenex
The biggest problem is that the GPL is the most common open source license. Because it limits the freedom of the developers so severely, only those few companies that subscribe to it’s philosophy can participate.
That “problem” is the single reason why Linux has not, unlike UNIX and BSD, “degenerated” into “Redhatlix”, “Debianlix”, “Ubultix”, “Suslix” and “Mandlix”. If that’s a “big problem”, then I find myself incredibly well disposed to big problems this afternoon.
2007-04-12 2:47 pmtwenex
The best way for open source to excel is to stop thinking of proprietary as evil.
Translation: “The best way for open source to excel is to turn itself into proprietary software”. Translation into Honest: “Bull”.
2007-04-13 3:08 amncsoze
Here is an example. REALBasic chose to use the GPL code from MySQL in their new plugin. Now if I use that plugin to support MySQL. So if you use the plugin, then you have to release your code as open source.
Now the only thing that your program gains from the use of open source is access to MySQL (A wonderful open source success story). To most of the world, the answer is simply to choose not to support MySQL. Everybody loses, MySQL sells fewer licenses as some that may have chose this good SQL server are forced to go with a more expensive solution. The application developer loses sales to those that choose another application because they another application that supports MySQL. I am sure that RealSoftware loses at least one customer for it.
Some in the open source community would say fine, we don’t want the proprietary people anyway. But my company would be more than willing to make improvements to the open source plugin and give back those changes – therefore the open source community could benefit from my companies developers efforts.
GPL creates an all or nothing approach. Most of the world is not willing to give their applications away, they depend on the uniqueness of their product to provide their revenue stream. But most are willing to open source many of their support algorithms. Licenses such as BSD allow people to contribute as much or as little as they wish, but encourage the growth of both the volume and quality of the entire body of open source software.
I am sorry for bringing up the licenses, but the truth is that the problems described in this article are a direct result of the GPL effect. Nearly all of the open source success stories are either non-GPL or Dual licensing situations where most of their money from the commercial license side.
2007-04-12 2:51 pmSoulbender
As someone who much prefer the BSD license to the GPL I just want to say “shut the hell up”.
Seriously, we don’t need yet another goddamn GPL vs BSD license flamefest on osnews.
2007-04-12 3:07 pmdylansmrjones
2007-04-13 3:19 amncsoze
Sorry, I do not want a “flamefest” either, but when I read the article i can’t ignore the obvious cause of the problem. It turns Open source into something to either avoided or used, but not built.
Trolltech is a great example. They have to write everything, they can not benefit from the work of the open source community (at least the GPL) portions. But they can USE the community by allowing the free non-commercial use to grab the hobbyist and students so that they can hopefully later convince their employers to purchase the over-priced commercial version.
2007-04-13 10:22 amMorin
> Trolltech is a great example. They have to write
> everything, they can not benefit from the work of
> the open source community (at least the GPL) portions.
It would be nice if more companies and developers followed the Trolltech route, because then Trolltech (as an example) could use dual-licensed code from others too. As an added value for their customers, they could also handle the licensing of the support code and hide it from the customer (sort of like a clean API in software).
Of course that would make Qt more expensive the more support code from other developers it uses. But then, it would also offer a whole new range of features such that charging more for Qt is fully appropriate (possibly extending the range of different Qt versions that differ in price and features).
2007-04-12 9:41 pmpauls101
The only way to make it work if you want to maintain some level of proprietary software is to operate your company in the traditional business model then dual license your code. This allows you to USE the open source community …, but you can’t use anyone else’s GPL code.
That’s about the only way I’d ever release anything under the GPL. It works beautifully for TrollTech, because they own Qt completely and it contains nothing “secret” in the sense of hard to figure out: it’s just too big to recreate for what a license costs.
The same applies to MS Word, actually: there’s nothing magic in there, just a lot of it. About the only downside to MS in GPLing Office (less the activation system) would be improved file support in already-GPL competitors. Judging from the official version, I’d rather rewrite their code than try to fix it, and you couldn’t give away a non-MS build (which would be a year out of date by the time you got it working anyway.)
The GPL has the effect of a pyramid scheme: the people at the top, with rights to fundamental stuff, get to control the licensing of anyone who uses their work (and thereby gives up all right to their own, if they distribute it.) If they weren’t the zealots they are, the FSF would look more evil than MS. The only difference is that you can realistically start your own pyramid – at the bottom.
There’s little doubt that open-source development is growing. However, it’s becoming increasingly “corporatized.” How is an open-source developer whose salary is paid by Sun or IBM any different from a proprietary developer whose salary is paid by Microsoft? A corporate drone is a corporate drone.
An increasing number of developers are opting out of the whole corporate rat race and going into business for themselves. Their hero is not Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman, but Joel Sposky. And they are building their business not on providing “support services” to open-source software, but by building proprietary software–or, in business terms, building a commercial product and charging a fair price for it.
The products I develop use some open-source components (Tcl, Python), which I use in compliance with their license. If I make an improvement to one of those open-source components to make it better fit with my product, I offer those improvements back to the original developer. But my products themselves are proprietary, and I only contribute to open-source projects when it is in my economic interest to do so.
The idea that some Fortune 500 company can simply open-source its software and dump it onto “the community” for free improvements is laughable to me. It’s certainly not in *my* economic interest to improve Java or the Linux kernel or SugarCRM for free.
It’s also absurd to me to suggest that open-source software will displace all proprietary software. TrollTech is often praised for its success in building a business around open-source, but the fact is, if only GPL’ed software were developed with Qt, TrollTech would be out of business overnight. They charge a hefty premium to use Qt in proprietary software–and they seem to earn a pretty handsome revenue stream from that.
Edited 2007-04-12 15:03
2007-04-12 3:28 pmMorin
Dual-licensing is actually a very plausible route that OSS can go. The nice thing about it is that it scales well: If 10 libraries are used in an application and all of them are dual-licensed just as Qt is now, you can either pay for all of them and build a proprietary application, or pay nothing and make it F/OSS.
Of course, paying for 10 libraries hurts, but then this is no worse than the situation today, and companies that actually build applications on top of 10 libraries are going to make quite some money out of it. And BTW, Qt pricing is really harmless:
But the really nice thing is that dual-licensing combines the advantages of both worlds. First, you get a set of libre, no-cost libraries to build a completely free system, if that is what you want (e.g. if you happen to be Mr Stallman). Of course, there will be a lot of applications that are non-free, but you get best support for building replacements. Secondly, proprietary software developers get the libraries they want. Those that build the libraries can do so to make money. Third, they get even more than with many libraries today, and that is the source code for the library. Fourth, the principle that with F/OSS, many eyes find bugs or even backdoors applies here too.
2007-04-12 3:52 pmTechGeek
Well luckily many people arent like you and can see the larger picture. You only see what directly applies to you and only care about the money in your pocket. What if your entire business was built on writing Java apps? Then it might be in your best interest to add to the Java project. You seem to think that people are out there just coding away for free for projects they have no interest in. Thats not the power of open source. People usually tend to develop for projects that directly relate to them. But instead of having to take on the entire burden, other people with similar interests help out. Creating a better product and reducing the cost for everyone. And as big businesses rely on a project for revenue more and more, they tend to put more and more resources into developing it. Sun and IBM get this. MS doesn’t. Which means they are doomed to stand still in a changing environment.
2007-04-12 4:31 pmMorin
TechGeek, you have to understand that “caring about the money in your pocket” is what companies are about. The developers in a company have to feed their families. Companies also have other expenses.
Now, have a look at a purely fictional software company, a small one with let’s say 10 employees. Let’s assume they are good at what they are doing and have the ability to create an application that really fits people’s needs. They also need to make money to feed their families. Now, what business model are you suggesting to them?
2007-04-13 12:54 amSoulbender
“Now, what business model are you suggesting to them?”
One that makes money. That may, or may not, be to create an OSS product. This depends on what product it is, what the market is like, what kind of sales force they have etc etc.
“At that point, open source software doesn’t look that much different in theory from proprietary code–develop some unique intellectual property and charge whatever the market will tolerate.”
Except you can’t charge for open-source software; someone else would just release a “free” version, if not multiple competing versions which dilute and weaken the market. And the starter-drug model of releasing the software for free and charging for documentation and support doesn’t work in the age of wikis…