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.
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.”
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.”
The Future Place of
RedMonk open-source software analyst Stephen OGrady told Ziff Davis Internet that he agrees that businesses are seeking new ways to use open source as the foundation for commercial products.
“Where I disagree is that this trend is somehow new. MySQLs been the standard-bearer for dual licensing for years, and there are lots of other businesses doing exactly the same thing: Sleepycat, DB4Objects, etc.
“Likewise, folks such as Covalent have been offering paid support for otherwise free and open-source applications for years. Take the example of Eclipse: IBM didnt open-source all of its development tools, but rather a subset that it and others could build on top of. So I agree that its a trend, but disagree that its new,” OGrady said.
Open-source advocate and author Eric S. Raymond agreed.
“There is nothing new or emerging about this,” he told Ziff Davis Internet. “Companies like Sendmail and MySQL, that were charter members of the movement, have been selling proprietary frosting for an open-source cake since the beginning. I identified it as one of the viable business models in “The Magic Cauldron.”
“The community is quite used to it. In a free market, I expect people to find out by experimentation which business models actually work. Thus, I havent been very surprised by anything thats come down the pike since 1997,” Raymond said.
OGrady said he doesnt see this trend as a particular problem for the open-source community.
“Open source has at this point, I believe, established that it can compete quite effectively even in established, mature markets, such as RDBMS [relational DMBS]. Given this, if a commercial provider proved to be an impediment to open-source development in a particular area, I think open source would be able to respond with an alternative,” OGrady said.
True or false, then: There will always be a place for truly open-source software in the enterprise IT world.
“Its almost certainly true,” Bloor said. “Once any useful software component is introduced into the open-source pool with a usage license that is acceptable to the typical enterprise, it is forever available. There is no point in replacing such components if they are stable and the capability they provide is static.
“Right now there are several trends in progress that will extend the life of such software components, such as virtualization and service-oriented architecture. Perpetual software upgrade is not inevitable, and its not desirable, either, for some software components. The long-term support effort required for such software components is low and will remain low.”
Open-source software business is subject to the same marketplace pressures as commercial products. Quality sells, and lack of innovation and support equates to a slow death.
“Right now the number of open-source projects is very large,” Bloor said. “Many tired software products will inevitably be superseded by open-source alternatives, but equally many open-source projects will not produce any software component that gains wide acceptance.
“In areas where software is still in a state of rapid evolution, few open-source products are gaining traction. Security software, system management and games software are good examples,” he said.
OGrady said he believes that open-source and commercial software will continue to exist side by side for the foreseeable future.
“The tension between the two will be high in certain applications and areas. But if OSCON [the recent OReilly Open Source Convention] was any indication, open-source developers are not uniformly against the commercial opportunities around open source, provided that the businesses involved give back to the community as much as they take from it,” he said.
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