Marc Fleury: The Jackie Robinson of Open-Source Software

Opinion: The way Marc Fleury ushered open-source software into the enterprise was similar to Jackie Robinson breaking the color line of Major League Baseball, sort of.

Slide, Marc, slide!

Marc Fleury, the ostentatious one-man show who helped make JBoss into an entity that could command a $350 million price tag, announced last week that he was hanging up his cleats and leaving Red Hat, the company he sold out to last April.

Fleury once told me he was the P. Diddy of software (more on that later), but to me he was more like the Jackie Robinson of open-source software. Because just as Robinson changed the face of professional sports, Fleury helped to change the software business by showing that open-source infrastructure software could perform just as well as closed-source commercial offerings that cost a whole lot more to license and maintain.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about Fleurys exit from Red Hat.

Robinson became pro baseballs first African-American player. He broke Major League Baseballs color barrier in 1947, and during his 10 years in the league he stole home 19 times (no small feat). Robinson ran the bases with abandon, daring pitchers to try to throw him out so he could capitalize and advance on an error.

Likewise, Fleury played the software industry with abandon. He braced the big boys and taunted them mercilessly in the press. Meanwhile, he took the offensive technologically, laying down bunts when necessary, but also singling, doubling and swinging for the fence often enough to muscle the fledgling JBoss Java application server into what became a tight three-way race for market-share supremacy. And IBM, BEA and JBoss still jostle in that tight race for the lead in the application server space.

Leaving of his own accord, you might say Fleury slid in to home plate safely and avoided the tag of the post-acquisition slump that can wrack a driven entrepreneur after the company he started gets acquired.

I remember asking Fleury a few years ago what his endgame would be. What did he want to be when JBoss grew up? He said he first wanted to make sure he took care of his core developers and ensure that they were compensated. Beyond that, he invited me to check back in a couple of years.


I also every so often would ask Fleury what he thought his legacy would be. He, to the end, said "professional open source"—his term for the process of building a business around the service and support of free open-source software, and paying your developers handsomely to innovate.

The model resonated with me, and apparently also resonated with much of the market that is willing to invest in software produced by the so-called professional open-source camps.

"I first heard about JBoss because many of my portfolio companies were using JBoss as the underpinning of their products and loved it," said David Skok, a venture capitalist with Matrix Partners, who invested in JBoss and counseled Fleury along the way. "They chose it first to do free development and expected to have to replace it at time of shipping, but realized the product was actually much better than the expensive competition."

Added Skok: "I think that most new open-source businesses are modeling themselves around business model ideas that JBoss pioneered, and trying to emulate that success."

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead here why Steven Vaughan-Nichols expects Marc Fleury to be back in the spotlight soon.

One such company that is working from a similar business model is Interface21, the maintainer of the popular Spring framework.

Rod Johnson, CEO of Interface21, said, "Love him or hate him [and there were plenty in each camp], Marc Fleury represented an important stage in the growth of Java open source. He generated a lot of attention to open source; he got people talking; and he deserves his financial success."

Besides, "Marcs aggressive style kicked open the enterprise software door for open source," Johnson said. "However, open source doesnt need a bullhorn anymore. As were seeing at Interface21, the Fortune 500 now sees open source strategically. They dont need to be told to use it; they need to be shown how, and they need partners who look more like them."

Ari Zilka, chief technology officer at Terracotta, which also follows a JBoss-like model, said, "I think Marc was a brilliant business leader, and he helped change the shape of IT for the better. … He opened the door for smaller companies and individuals to lead innovation."

However, Dain Sundstrom, a former JBoss core developer who left the nest a few years ago to develop on the competing Apache Geronimo platform, sees things a bit differently.

Asked about Fleurys contribution to the industry, Sundstrom said: "It really depends on your point of view. For businessmen that are thinking of building based on open source, JBoss is fabulous case study. For businessmen thinking buying an open-source company, JBoss stands as a classic cautionary tale to be careful to personally inspect that land in Florida before purchasing it. For open-source programmers, JBoss stands as cautionary tale to what can happen when you turn your hard work over to businessmen."

Jeff Genender, another developer innovating around Geronimo, called Fleury "quite a flamboyant individual, and I think part of his image was his uncanny ability to be disruptive on many levels."

Yet, "as much as there were things that Marc did that seemed to rub folks the wrong way, he made a huge wake for open source," Genender said. "His open-source application server was incredibly disruptive to the big software vendors, and they saw JBoss as a threat. I think vendors thought that the Global 2000 would never embrace open source. But he brought JBoss to a level that companies could honestly feel comfortable looking at open-source alternatives."

In addition, Genender said he respects what Fleury did for open source. "I honestly think he was a significant factor for why I can go into a Fortune 500 company and they dont even blink when I mention open-source solutions," he said.

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