Open Source Software: Customers Define the Field We Play On

We’re a small, Open Source software vendor that’s been offering a variant of an Open Source CRM since 2000. We have some large corporate clients with significant installations and hundreds and hundreds of users with smaller ones. Our product is called
Centric CRM though until recently it was known as Dark Horse CRM.


In an effort to stay as close to the CRM and Open Source communities as we can we regularly run surveys; there are so many myths circulating with respect to both Open Source and CRM that we hope to de-mystify a few of them with data. Below are the results of a small survey we recently undertook. The results – statistically insignificant – may not surprise you. The conclusions we reach, may. Nonetheless, we share the results and our conclusions in the belief that more discussions based on data lead to a healthier Open Source community.

The survey:

asked 87 individuals their opinion of the attractiveness of different
attributes of Open Source software. Those we surveyed ranged from
users of Centric CRM to non-users, from senior IT executives to front
line managers, and from those with deep knowledge of Open Source to
others with only a casual understanding.

survey is not, as noted above, statistically significant nor was it
our intent to create one that was. We run surveys in an on-going
attempt to understand the industry for our internal use and not to
sell to others – the latter purpose requires a higher degree of
discipline than we’re probably capable of. Nonetheless, we
believe the results reflect what we’ve anecdotally heard over
many years and over thousands of conversations on the subject and
would be inline if a more statistically significant survey were done.

1 reflects the questions we asked, explains the scale (1 to 7)
upon which the answers were based, and shows the average (mean) of
respondents’ answers to each question. The list has been
ordered to reflect those attributes of Open Source software
respondents found most attractive to those considered least
attractive. Thus, "features you need" was deemed the
most important attribute of Open Source software while the right to
redistribute code "externally" was, on average, the least
attractive attribute.

Table 1:

Please rate on a scale
from 1 to 7 the attractiveness to you of the following 7
attributes of Open Source software. 1 means it has very low appeal
to you, 7 means it has very high appeal to you.

Average (mean)

1. How important is it that the
software has the features you need?


2. How attractive is the
availability of quality commercial support?


3. How attractive is the right to
use the code for internal purposes however you want?


4. How attractive is the right to
define the terms of the license for the improvements you might


5. How attractive is low price
(and/or being "free")?


6. How attractive is the
availability of source code?


7. How attractive is the right to
redistribute the code to others externally (i.e. commercially)?


Comments & Observations:

spent a little time noodling over what this data means. Following is
a bit of what we came up with.

: "How important is it that the software has the
features you need?"
Mean Answer: 6.59.

respondents rate "the features you need" as highly
appealing seems quite obvious. In fact, the question seemed so
obvious to us in planning the survey we considered not even asking
it. Upon further reflection we decided to include it because we
thought Open Source aficionados might find the need for features
relatively less important as access to source can facilitate
the addition of those features that might be missing. But this was
not the case. Respondents clearly suggest that having the right
features is the number 1 thing they demand in Open Source software.

the implication for vendors of Open Source software? You better be
competitive on the feature front. This reflects our experience over
the past five years. We’ve consistently moved up the food
chain as we’ve proven our core features do the basics at least
as well as the proprietary offerings. Corporate customers may cut
you a little slack because you’re Open Source, but not much.
And the more mission critical the use the less they can afford to
give you the benefit of the doubt.

: How attractive is the availability of quality commercial
? Mean Answer: 5.94.

attractiveness of commercial support as demonstrated by respondents’
answers to this question is also confirmed by our experience selling
an Open Source CRM. You’re not seriously considered for larger
engagements if there’s any doubt in your ability to be around
for the long haul to support the code. Serious users do not consider
support and maintenance a luxury. They’re a necessity. In
our case, we’ve written roughly 800,000 lines of code in the
past 5 years. Moreover, our code functions intimately with several
hundred thousand lines of 3rd party code. Few IT managers
want to manage this complexity on their own. They have too many
other dragons to slay.

: How attractive is the right to use the code for internal
purposes however you want?
Mean Answer: 5.47.

As a general
rule respondents valued the unencumbered use of software for internal
purposes quite high. However, the average (mean) doesn’t tell
the whole story. A number of respondents cared deeply about this
right, others cared to a considerable degree, and many cared only
moderately. Moreover, we couldn’t find much of a rhyme or
reason as to why they responded as they did given their comments.
Except in one type of case. In those instances where respondents
were involved in efforts to extend Centric CRM (our software) in some
fundamental or important way, they invariably responded with a "6"
or "7". Which makes sense. Control is paramount in
these instances.

: How attractive is the right to define the terms of the
license for the improvements you might make
Mean Answer: 5.28.

of the respondents in our survey were from organizations not
in the business of selling IT products and services. Considering
this, the relative attractiveness of control in how improvements are
licensed surprised us. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive to value
a right so much if your core business makes the need for it mostly
moot. After a bit of chin pulling on this we concluded that perhaps
there’s a simple and very American dynamic (given all of the
respondents were US citizens) at play here.

A cultural
bias in the US is "I can do with my property what I want".
The software version of this goes something like "If I create
some really cool code it’s my right to determine how it’s
to be licensed." As a rule this is a pretty sound position.
And we believe this sentiment is reflected in the responses to this
question. But we’d ask: How does this sentiment jibe with the
GPL? The answer is it doesn’t. If you want the right to
license what you’ve built and in your own unique way – as
"free as in speech" – don’t extend it from
GPL code. Other OSI licenses like BSD and LGPL can work fine, but
not the GPL. As the preamble to the GPL says, "to protect your
rights we need to make restrictions". One of those is that
modifications must themselves be GPL’d. We point this out not
to bad mouth the GPL. In fact, we believe it’s a revolutionary
(and needed) tool and ideal for certain situations and classes of
software. Rather, we point this out because many blindly, and with
little regard to what customers and/or partners want, try to make it
fit all situations. It doesn’t and it can’t. We find it
great at the lower levels of the stack. We find it
counter-productive in many other domains.

: How attractive is low price (and/or being "free")?
Mean Answer: 4.81.

This was also
a bit of a surprise to us. Not only because of the relatively low
mean, but because this question had the greatest skew. It was one of
only two questions where each possible response got at least one
vote. Answers ranged from "1" all the way to "7".

obvious why low price is attractive when considering Open Source
software. On the other hand, those that rated "low price"
as less appealing shared their thinking in comments like: "You
get what you pay for – reasonable pricing is better than free"
(senior IT executive from a large not-for-profit foundation) and
"free is not necessary, but we do want prices that are fair and
where we can get a clear ROI" (e-business executive from a
large media company).

What are the implications of price in the battle
for market share? Considered in conjunction with Questions 1 and 2
above (i.e., regarding the appeal of features and support) we think
the implications are clear. Price may be a differentiator but it
will not be the determinant in Open Source software’s battle to
penetrate the enterprise. Features and support are at least as
important, if not more so, than price. Institutional users are
simply not willing to sacrifice capabilities and maintainability for
saving a few dollars. To be taken seriously Open Source applications
must compete to a considerable degree along those dimensions
traditionally dominated by proprietary vendors – features and
support. We believe this will be a challenge for those applications
that get forked too much by competing distributors. They may not be
able to sustain an economic base large enough to create compelling
features and build a brand.

: How attractive is the availability of source code?
Mean Answer: 4.75.

It was
initially disheartening to see the average response to this question
as low at it was. Does this mean source code simply isn’t that
important to many? We believe the answer to that question is no.
More likely we did a poor job of asking the right question.

Had we to do
the survey over again we’d likely turn this question into two
or more that touch on different aspects of the subject. For
instance, we might ask something like: "Is the availability of
source code attractive to you given your propensity to extend or
modify software?" If asked this way we believe the average
response would be significantly lower. Why? Few users tinker with
source and so availability is of marginal value along that dimension.
However, we’d also ask a second question that might go
something like: "Is the availability of source code attractive
to you in general business terms". The responses to this would
probably be much higher. While few users actually expect or want to
modify source code, we believe most appreciate the "freedom"
it can guarantee. As one respondent said: "we want the
assurance of being able to support an application if the vendor

: How attractive is the right to redistribute the code to
others externally (i.e. commercially)?
Mean Answer: 3.91

The overall
low attractiveness of the right to redistribute isn’t
surprising given most of those we surveyed are with organizations
whose core business has nothing to do with software. As one
succinctly put it, "I don’t aspire to being a reseller".
Thus, they neither expect to modify code nor will they ever have a
need to redistribute it. The few respondents who took the survey
that were from IT products and services businesses felt very
differently. They greatly value the ability to redistribute code and
they want to do so on terms of their choosing – as expressed in
Question 4. But again, for most organizations the right to
redistribute code is of very low perceived value.


As a vendor
of Open Source software the conclusions we reach can be boiled down
to two simple truths.

First, to be
considered in the game of enterprise-class software there are antes
that must be met. They’re called features and support. Like
in poker, if you can’t "ante up" you won’t
get in the game. Price may be a powerful differentiator but by
itself is not enough. Open Source vendors must make the commitment
and find the means to create robust products that stack up along
these two critical dimensions.

And second,
customers are neither dumb nor blind. They know a lack of features
when they see it. They’re also not blind to believing that
somehow the Open Source label will make missing things like features
miraculously appear. At times it seems our community is lulled into
believing that the Open Source process by itself magically creates
code. And great code at that. It doesn’t work that way.
Robust features, great UI, documentation etc., all take time, talent,
close collaboration, and resources. For Open Source vendors to
succeed they need to find just the right mix of attributes to get
customers excited and then keep them that way. This is not easy.

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