Will Profit Motives Fragment Open-Source Community?

News Analysis: Open-source and commercial software coexist, but some fear an eventual victor.

Will profit-hungry international corporate cultures ultimately change the fundamental altruistic values of the open-source software community?

There will always be a place for open-source software; thats a lock.

However, there are those who believe that as the community and some of its most successful products mature and become more integral to the success of enterprise IT systems—where untold amounts of money change hands—the community may become less free-hearted and more profit-oriented.

Open-source software can be found in virtually every business IT system in the world. According to Netcraft Ltd.s September 2005 survey of 72 million sites, the Apache HTTP Server now runs 70 percent (nearly 50 million) of the worlds Web servers.

A high (and growing) percentage of the worlds application servers and most LAN wireless routers run Linux; the Firefox browser and OpenOffice.org business tools are becoming more common on the desktop; Perl and other scripting codes are vital components in IT stacks; and numerous other examples exist.

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Most open-source companies have long offered their software free and built business around value-added services and support. A much smaller number have been selling open-source software with premium-level add-on components for years; that model is not new.

But the number of companies falling into the latter category appears to be increasing, which could eventually change the underlying structure of the open-source community as we know it.

Hurwitz Associates analyst Robin Bloor, a 15-year veteran of the IT business, is among those who think the number of companies going for the gold is heading up. The hooks have been in the water, and now the fish are starting to bite.

"A clear trend is steadily emerging: [More] companies with open-source offerings are gradually starting to charge for software," Bloor wrote in his Weblog earlier this month.

"There are now many examples of this and there will be more in time. MySQL Inc. has led the way on this. In fact, it has always offered a two-tier product structure, with two different licenses. One is a free open-source version issued under the GPL and the other a paid-for version where you pay for support.

"A two-tier product structure allows an open-source company to add components that are charged for—or are only available if you pay for support. JBoss is another example.

"The majority of JBoss software products are free (including the App Server, Hibernate, JBoss Eclipse IDE, jBPM and JBoss Portal Web Server) and will probably remain so. However, the JBN Enterprise Manager will only be available to customers that buy JBoss support."

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Bloor added that open-source database vendor Enterprise DB is also running a two-tier model.

"Enterprise DB is an Oracle emulator based on the open-source PostgreSQL database. It provides full PL/SQL capability, and whole Oracle applications can be migrated to run on it," Bloor said.

"The companys approach is to contribute its IP back to the PostgreSQL community in time, but only after it has used it to generate license revenue. Sun Microsystems runs a similar model with OpenOffice, which is free, and StarOffice, which is a more evolved version of the same product, but comes at a price."

Another example is VA Software Inc., which once distributed its chief product, the SourceForge distributed development platform, free.

"VAs SourceForge Enterprise Edition is neither free nor open source," Bloor said. "VA Software doesnt want to open-source the product—simply because it would let competitors in."

Right now, Bloor told Ziff Davis Internet, "We have several open-source companies whose business model was founded on throwing something useful into the open-source pool to generate a market. The key is to identify an area where significant value can be delivered to a well-established market, but where further value can be added.

"Such companies will naturally win the services business that arises from such open-source components, and they can easily introduce proprietary software that adds value to the open-source components they supply. It is indeed a hook in the water—but for fish that see genuine value in getting caught," Bloor said.

This seems reasonable from a commercial perspective, but it has caused some ructions among purists in the open-source community, who "seem to believe that all software should be free," he said.

"It looks to me as though MySQL, JBoss, Enterprise DB, et al. are beginning to demonstrate how open source will evolve," Bloor said.

"Certainly, there are software products that ought to be free (or extremely low cost) simply because the capabilities they provide have sunk to a commodity level. However, in order to support some of these products, a revenue stream is necessary—and desirable, too. Many of these products are now so widely used that their continued existence needs to be ensured."

Next Page: The future place of open source.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...