A Customer-Driven Approach to Open Software: “Community Code”

The Open Source model – and by Open Source we mean products that adhere to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) guidelines – doesn’t, and may never, work for many important software domains. All religious fervor aside, this is a reality because customers say so. We may want it to be otherwise, but the ultimate arbiters in the Open Source versus proprietary debate are customers.Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of osnews.com

We founded Dark Horse in December 1999. Our business at that time was solving interesting customer-related challenges for our clients, and specifically through the use of information technology. And because we’d had considerable experience using OSI products we assumed we could deliver as part of our value a compelling Open Source CRM that would save money and meet the needs of our clients. But we were mistaken. For while there were great OSI products at the lowest levels of the software stack (e.g. Linux and Apache) and quality stuff in the middle (e.g. MySQL and PostgreSQL) the application layer was disappointing. There simply weren’t any enterprise-class, Open Source CRMs that we trusted could serve as the foundation for a robust customer management platform. And in our humble opinion, there still aren’t.

So necessity being the mother of innovation, we embarked on creating our own version of an “open” CRM. Taking our customers’ lead, we worked with them to create a solution that put in the important stuff they wanted and left out the rest. Our approach became equal parts building what they were willing to pay for while doing what we thought was best. It’s now four years and many engagements later and working jointly we’ve created Dark Horse CRM. It’s a robust, continually evolving, customer-defined, enterprise-class CRM licensed under what we refer to as “Community Code”. And from our customers’ point of view – which is what matters most to us – it looks a lot like Open Source. They have access to source code, they can add to it, they’re part of a community of business users (and with tools to support them) and improvements flow back for the benefit of all. But our license doesn’t precisely follow the OSI guidelines. Why? Because Community Code better fits one of our clients’ top requirements of us – that we remain a viable commercial enterprise that continues to aggressively advance the product and is there to support it. The Open Source model, at least in the space we’re playing (CRM), didn’t allow us to evolve the commercial side of our business to the degree our stakeholders require. Our customers want control of code; they don’t want to be held hostage; and they want a fair price. They also want an application that is rapidly evolving; they want it to run on both commercial and OSI platforms; and they want somebody they can turn to for support 24 X 7. To live up to these expectations we needed to modify our business model… and by extension the core licensing approach that underlies it. Thus was born our Community Code approach and our initial product, Dark Horse CRM.

How the Community Code model works

As the term implies, organizations that license Dark Horse CRM effectively become part of a community. And two characteristics are common to most communities. First, they’re formed of individuals with like interests. And second, they provide value compelling enough to entice members to join. In the case of the Dark Horse community, companies share an interest in better managing and servicing their customers, and specifically through the use of technology. The value that compels these organizations to join is access to software that approaches in sophistication that sold by proprietary vendors, significantly surpasses in design discipline and rate of development the OSI offerings, but which adheres to many tenets embodied in the latter. For instance, similar to OSI, the Community Code model allows users to extend the product at the source code level. As well, members of the community pay neither initial licensing fees nor for upgrades. The ethos of Community Code therefore is a cousin to OSI; members have ultimate control of their software destiny – which access to source code allows – while not forced to pay for that which has already been developed.

But healthy communities have rules. And the principle rule of the Dark Horse CRM community is similar to that which forms the basis for the GNU GPL – the mother of all OSI licenses. And that is, all extensions and improvements which users (i.e. members) make to the product come back to others in the community. The reason for and fairness of this rule is easily understood. In first becoming a part of our software community members have the right to use, for free, that which is already there. In effect, they have access to the combined development of those who have joined and contributed previously. This is a considerable benefit for joining. The quid pro quo, however, is an agreement to provide back to the community all improvements to the code you as a member might (but aren’t obligated to) make going forward.

And successful communities also require discipline, processes and infrastructure to operate. That is, there are real costs to running them. The Dark Horse community is no different. Accordingly, the use of Dark Horse CRM and belonging to the community is not free. Users are obligated to assist in the ongoing support of the software and community by paying a maintenance fee. This obligation, which takes the form of an annual payment, looks similar in scope and form to that which proprietary vendors also call maintenance. In the Dark Horse model it’s mandatory, at least for some period of time.

More about us and our approach is found at www.darkhorsecrm.com.


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