✭ On the term “open source business”

Hunter and HuntedI’ve been having a number of conversations in e-mail on the subject of open core business models. The problem that keeps coming up is that there are a range of behaviours exhibited, some of which are acceptable to pragmatists and some of which cross the line into abusing the term “open source”. Where should we draw the line in? When is it acceptable for a company to call itself “an open source business” and when is it not?

An example is a hypothetical  business with an open source “Community Edition” of their software product which lacks many features of the commercial versions. It is indeed freely available under an open source license and fully functional. I am sure there are happy deployers of this version. If this was the only version available, I would have no issues.

The commercial versions are significantly different from the community version, with both user interface differences and functional differences. While paid licensees are entitled to source access to this version, the commercial licence is not perpetual, meaning that if the customer ends their relationship with the vendor, they lose the right to use this version. Since this version significantly differs from the community version, there is no fall-back plan and while the customer may have access to their data (if the vendor is sufficiently enlightened about open data), there’s no software they can continue to use. They are unable to trade “time” for “money”, to use Mårten Mickos’ famous explanation – they are locked in and the open source core of the proprietary version delivers no freedom to them.

If this latter situation was described as “proprietary” (or avoided association with open source, as for example IBM’s WebSphere does in its embedding of Apache HTTPD) I would have no issues either.

The fact is, the community edition and the commercial editions have disjoint user bases. The community edition is used by a group of people who have the time and skills to deploy by themselves and who have no need of the many differences of the commercial versions. The commercial versions are feature-rich and effectively lock their users into a traditional commercial ISV relationship with the vendor.  If these two were kept distinct, there would probably be no pragmatic issue (naturally Free Software purists would still protest the existence of closed code, but that’s not a part of this particular argument).

But a vendor which mixes these two encourages exactly the market confusion that OSI was designed to minimise. If they claim to be “an open source business” and use the presence of the community edition as a credential to sell the proprietary versions, they wrap themselves in the open source flag and their actions are exactly the gaming of the maturity of the Open Source Initiative that I believe should be challenged.

The question is how. As Matthew Aslett points out,

In short, if you want to police the term “open source company” then you have to have a definition for it first.

That’s true. Defining an “open source company” will be impossibly subjective, since most companies have open source in their source code mix these days. Given “open source” can only refer to software, I think is far smarter to discourage use of the term all together.

23 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Colin Charles, Shaun Stanislaus. Shaun Stanislaus said: On the term “open source business” http://j.mp/c3Sj6f <– good read from @webmink […]

  2. […] finally, as I wrote this also Simon Phipps came back with further commentary, where he reuses some ideas developed earlier on this blog: Since this version significantly […]

  3. “Defining an “open source company” will be impossibly subjective, since most companies have open source in their source code mix these days. Given “open source” can only refer to software, I think is far smarter to discourage use of the term all together.”

    Is this some badly written ending due to a hectic CLS session, or are you really suggesting to throw in the towel?

    As I see it, an open source business is a business where the main product (as sold) is under an open source license. Sure, maybe there is a small gray area somewhere that we need to explore, but by and large it is not too difficult to make a distinction.

    Those companies that have committed themselves to true open source business models, get a lot of goodwill because of that, and they *should* get a lot of goodwill. They *should* benefit from being able to use the phrase “leading open source vendor” in their marketing. Discouraging everyone from using open source to their advantage in marketing would mean the closed source side is winning.

    • The more I reflect on it, the more I believe that the open core companies have sadly put the term “open source company” beyond use for the rest of us.

      Do you really want there to be a risk that your customers will believe that your business practices are the same as those companies who want to use the tools of “open” to create lock-in? As Mark Radcliffe and Matthew Aslett are at pains to point out, “policing” the term “Open Source Business” will be very hard, especially with them trying to stop it happening. So let’s just put it beyond use by everyone.

      • Ok. Well, at least I’m not going to give up just yet.

        I don’t see this as much different than any previous attempts at trying to circumvent the definition of open source and we have been good at “policing” software freedom so far, I don’t see the need for pessimism. The fact that those who get revenues from open core (directly or indirectly) speak up on its behalf is of course just normal, all previous challenges have also involved someone with a self interest.

        • I think we mostly agree. I am just struck by the fact that the term “open source company” can be read as an oxymoron – since open source refers to a software licensed under an OSI-approved, OSD-compliant licence and that cannot describe a company – and furthermore relies on explanation to make sense to a customer.

          Customers want the flexibility and cost savings that result from the liberty open source delivers, so maybe it would be smarter to refer to a Liberty-Loving Software Company or something similar but far better!

  4. If you want to nitpick, there are no “open source companies” but there surely are “open source vendors”: those that sell open source software and services. If the open source vendors want to call themselves open source companies, that may be sloppy use of terminology, but not really a problem.

    I did think about this in a similar way that you seem to do, for instance one could see an FSF person coming in to say that this is what you get for saying “open source” and if we had just stuck to calling it “free software” then none of this would have happened. I think all of this would have happened no matter what you want to call it (and if you start promoting some new phrase, it will just continue to be a problem). If “free software” was the popular term, then we would have “free core” vendors claiming to be “free software vendors” and we would have exactly the same discussion. Larry Augustin would say that Sugar is free software, he just doesn’t refer to the specific 4 freedoms of RMS, in fact he has his own list with 5 freedoms so he is more free than RMS 🙂 Do you see my point?

    So the conclusion of the above is that this is not a question of what term or brand we should use. We have promoted the open source brand for 12 years now. That is an investment that should be protected, rather than conceding defeat and retreating.

    If anything, this underlines again the passivity of the OSI. For sure, if FSF was attacked by this kind of confusion and brand dilution, the response from RMS’s troops would certainly be more fierceful. So how is that infusion of new blood coming along?

    Anyway, I had a counterquestion. Even if you could not define an open source company/vendor, we certainly can define what open source software is. How does the mixing of brands go there? Is SugarCRM open source, please answer yes or no?

    • Yes, I agree with your logic although I am still not convinced we should refer to companies who make their living from open source software as anything other than that. The one thing that everyone is likely to agree is whether or not a given program is indeed open source since we have an objective test.

      As your SugarCRM: Doesn’t look like the commerical versions are open source since it they are, regardless of the status of the code from which they are derived, not released under an OSD-compliant OSI-approved licence. The Community Edition looks like it is open source though.

      • The one thing that everyone is likely to agree is whether or not a given program is indeed open source since we have an objective test.

        So one would think, yet below “jrep” is entering purely subjective feelings into the discussion there too. This actually reminds me of a discussion on an internal MySQL mailing list once. Also then I was surprises to learn that many of those who opposed the closed source direction didn’t at all strive for objectivity, rather had all kinds of reasons why they held their view.

        As your SugarCRM: Doesn’t look like the commerical versions are open source since it they are, regardless of the status of the code from which they are derived, not released under an OSD-compliant OSI-approved licence. The Community Edition looks like it is open source though.

        So is this a yes or no? This is my point with asking the question. You cannot unequivocally answer yes, and the list of OSI certified licenses is a solid objective ground to stand on. Hence, SugarCRM software is not (fully) open source, I would extend it to saying the brand is not truly open source, and since this software in question comprises all of SugarCRM’s business, I would say it is not an open source business/vendor.

        • It’s neither yes nor no since the question is not open to a yes/no answer. If you mean “is SugarCRM and open source company” clearly my reply is that I don’t believe the term should be used by any company at the moment until we’ve a clear consensus on use of the term.

          If you mean the software, you need to identify the particular product as they appear to have multiple products sharing the same name, one of which (the community edition) is open source.

        • If you want to give a precise answer, then I know exactly which parts of Sugar are and aren’t open source. In real life people will however think of Sugar as being or not being open source. Currently with open core software/companies they tend to think “yes”, but the real answer is more towards “no”. The “no” is not a precise answer, but certainly more correct than “yes”.

  5. While it’s certainly true that “open source” is, in its essence, a description of the software, it’s legitimate English-language usage to extend that as an adjective to a company. If you want to forbid that, you’ll have also to outlaw all the “database companies” and the “operating system companies,” and pretty much every software company on the planet. Except, of course, for those blecherous exercises in vapid marketing that fill pages with “solutions” and “we’ll make you succeed” and never trouble to mention what they’re actually selling. Personally, I’d rather not yield the field to them.

    Last week, you were campaigning to forbid so-called “open-core businesses” (which, of course, would be another casualty of your new anti-adjectivity) from calling themselves “open-source.” Where does this week’s prohibition against anyone using the term leave us? Is it any less acceptable for an “open-core business” to call itself “open-source” than for any other business? “Less than zero” acceptability? Or are all equally forbidden? I fear you’ve overstretched your arguments, to the point where we no longer have language to name the (very real) problem you inveighed against last week.

    • I’m not sure you’re right. Open Source has an overloaded meaning in addition to its natural-language parsing, which differs from for example “database”. The expression “open source company” thus plays on the multiple layers of ambiguity.

      But that’s beside the point 🙂 I am more than happy to downscale my suggestion to a workable proposal, just as soon as someone makes one…

      • Ah, but natural language loves overloaded meaning, nuance, and ambiguity. We keep trying, but society at large just refuses to put us formalist techies in charge! 😉

        At any rate: on that whole “workable proposal” idea, the one I’ve been proposing is that we start by slicing the current field known as “open core” into two pieces:

        Where the open part is reasonably complete and useful on its own, not a bait-and-switch, not crippleware, not demoware; and where the company truly works to foster a viable user-contributor community; and where the company’s business plan is to provide additional services and value on top of the open stuff (as well as support and indemnity for the open stuff), then I suggest a new term, “open infrastructure.” And I suggest this be viewed as a positive term.

        Where any of those conditions fails, I suggest we call “foul,” call it something else (I’m personally very fond of the “faux-pen source” label), and inveigh away.

        If there’s such a thing as an “open source company” among those two choices, it’s clearly not the latter. Might be the former, or it might be that this term should be reserved for companies where 100% of their product source is open.

        I think you’ll see that there’s still oodles of room to slice and dicker and quibble and dissent there, which all makes for great memes and discussions. But with luck, an argument over which of these terms to apply in a given case, or how better to define their distinctions, will contribute to a general appreciation of the kinds of goodness we’re trying to encourage. Instead of obfuscating them, or removing all terms of discourse from use.

        • Where the open part is reasonably complete and useful on its own, not a bait-and-switch, not crippleware, not demoware; and where the company truly works to foster a viable user-contributor community;

          Can you elaborate on the objective criteria how you define “crippleware”, “complete” or “useful”?

          You can’t, those are purely subjective attributes. Therefore, this is not a useful direction to go into. The only objective and solid ground to stand on is the Open Source Definition and list of OSI certified licenses.

          By adding personal aspirations beyond that only convolutes the discussion. So for instance, the Open Source Definition doesn’t actually require you to have a vibrant community. If you just passively publish open source software somewhere, it’s still open source. The OSD doesn’t require the software to be useful or complete, also crappy software can be open source. Etc…

          You can of course separately wish or require that some software should be useful to you, complete, have a strong community, be fun to use, etc… I’m just concerned about software being open source, and this is what this discussion is about. These are 2 entirely different things.

    • “Open source” is not a product. Your analogy is wrong independently of any grammatical correctness.

  6. Simon:

    I apologize about the density of my dent… sometimes it’s tempting to cram a lot of entropy into 140, but there is a consequent semantic fuzz.

    Allow me to rephrase: There are two points I want to see if I understand correctly:

    1) I believe you are asserting that for a label, such as “open source company”, to have meaning we must carefully define the term. (as an aside I believe you are championing evolution of the OSI precisely to carefully shepherd the definition of “open source”).

    2) “open source company” is ambiguous. This builds on the English semantic problem with “free” and then continues with what one would call an open source company. For example, if a company has an “open core” strategy does that qualify them to wrap themselves in the open source flag (and expect the concomitant pixie dust)? If a company engages in a wide variety of activities but has, say, one of many activities which plausibly could have the “open source” moniker, does that allow them to wear the flag? Is there a magic percentage of products that are “open source” that sets the bar? Is the bright line test based on whether or not said company *allows* “open source” in the firewall (e.g. Apache httpd to run the corporate website)? Would the following companies qualify as “open source companies”…. (this is a rhetorical question):


    and now, since i have the space,
    3) If we *did* define an “open source company” would it be enough to say that it published one or more copyrighted works under a OSI (or FSF or CC) license?



    • I think everyone in this thread (and its satellites) has agreed or presumed that any (if any) legitimate use of “open source company” has to have its “openness” in its products, not just in its data center. It’s not *use* of open-source software, but rather *production*, that might grant the right to the title (if anything might).

      But your other question is potent: must it be 100% of their production? 99%? 80%? One Really Good Contribution? We used to be open, but have gotten a bit lax lately?

  7. Henrik asks: “Can you elaborate on the objective criteria how you define ‘crippleware’, ‘complete’ or ‘useful’?”

    No, I don’t believe there can be objective criteria for these things (which is also, I take it, the intent of your rhetorical question). Some rough measures, perhaps; a thumb-rule or two, no doubt; but objective, closed-form, hard-as-nails, immutable, eternal? Nah.

    But then, Henrik goes on: “Therefore, this is not a useful direction to go into.” We may have an epistemological disagreement, here. I think the things we care about are “the things we actually care about”; when we can codify them into predicate calculus or law or other such blunt-edge tools, it can be handy, but this often involves an undesirable reductionism, limiting both our scope of discourse, and our conclusions within the thus-limited scope. If “usefulness” and “freedom” are what we actually care about, then we darned well better find ways to talk about them, instead of talking only about the related tangents and shards of meaning we happen to have formal specifiers for.

    • It was only semi-rethorical, I wasn’t sure what you thought. For instance, I know people who oppose some business models that are “kosher” open source models in that 100% of the source code is under an OSI license, but they don’t like what a company is doing because it fails to foster a viable community, collaborate openly, etc…

      The discussions always become a bit hairy when you add those opinions to the mix. The open core issue can be resolved on very objective grounds: It’s not open source since it’s about software under proprietary, non-OSI license.

      Separately it is an interesting discussion to find “best practices” types of outcomes, and discuss what is or isn’t useful. Even without open core there certainly is a lot of open source software that is completely useless (even I’ve written some, it was superceded by browser technology). So yes, I care a little bit about usefullness too, it’s just not relevant in the open core debate. (To me, open source has such a big inherent value, than when an issue can be resolved purely on that basis, any other arguments are superfluous.)

      But even if open core software might be useful, it’s still not open source.

      • Did that last line mean that even the open parts of an open-core conglomerate aren’t legitimately “open source”? I don’t think your earlier remarks tend that way, but that one seemed to.

        • No. It means that even if some software contains parts that may be open source, that doesn’t mean that you can label the whole mix as open source.

          My earlier comments about SugarCRM (without the additional “Community” or “Enterprise” qualifiers) are an example of that thinking.

          Like Andrew Oliver now also blogs at opensource.org, almost all software nowadays contain some open source components. This doesn’t mean that almost all software is open source.

  8. […] the meantime others have declared that there is no such thing as an open source company and decided instead to discourage use of the term altogether. This is the logical conclusion of the argument […]

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