✭ 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.

✍ OpenSolaris Governance

You may have seen some of the news reporting of the OpenSolaris Governing Board (OGB) meeting that was held last Monday (I am an elected member of the Board). At a meeting with an unusually large number of community observers, we discussed how to respond to the 100% radio silence the OGB has experienced from the new owners of the OpenSolaris copyright and infrastructure. I believe we reached a balanced and well-considered conclusion and remain hopeful of a good outcome.

Read about it on my ComputerWorld blog

✈ United’s Retro, courtesy of Google

I’m heading to California en route to OSCON (where I’ll be speaking on Wednesday at 5:20pm about open source continuity – use code os10fos to get a 20% discount if you’ve still to buy your ticket). I just got a voicemail from the airline delivered as a transcription by Google Voice and it’s definitely trying to put me in a California retro mood:

Hello. This is united with an easy update. Departure reminder message. United flight number 9:55. You will be departing on time, and hence. Yorty 5 hey m once again flight, yeah 9:55. Yum. Yeah, London Heathrow. 2 Yeah Francisco, California. Yawn. You July. Hey extinct. Yeah, we’ll be departing on time, and hence. Yorty 5. Hey M, flight information is subject to change. Please check the flight information. Monitors at the airport. Thank you for choosing United. Goodbye.

Hey, yeah extinct yum baby.

☞ Open Core Case Study

  • While their marketing guy may claim “that overall, Sugar 6 is an open source product from an open source company”, it’s hard to see how they are anything other than a proprietary software company who share some code with a related open source project. Claiming to be “an open source company” seems an unacceptable use of the open source brand to me. Open Core is bad for you.

✈ Join Me At Open World Forum

The conference landscape evolves constantly. Old events pass away, new ones arrive and it’s good to get pointers to know what’s worthwhile. I can recommend this year’s Open World Forum, happening in Paris on September 30 and October 1.It’s a volunteer-run conference for the open source and free software community and covers multiple tracks and events both for business and community interests.

Unusually for such a broad event, admission is completely free of charge and you’ll have the chance to listen to speakers such as James Governor, Eben Moglen, Matt Asay and many more. I’m honoured to be chairing the opening plenary session on September 30th.

With such a  broad and rich agenda and hosted in such an appealing and central location it’s easy to find reasons to attend and hard to see why not. Looking forward to seeing you there!

☞ Packaging Redux

  • This post, effectively a manifesto for the next generation of packaging, is well worth reading as Matt articulately describes the same issues that led the OpenSolaris team to develop IPS.
    His solution differs – not one ring to bind them all, but rather a decoupling of cooperating package management approaches so that appropriate solutions can address specific needs. This is a call to order that deserves a serious, collective, non-partisan response.

☞ Easy Access

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