Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

When Is Open Source Not Open Source?

Now there's a truly odd question, don't you think? It's almost a Clintonesque phrase. The truth is that much so-called open source software is not really open source.

There are three ways that open source is not really open source. First, when you have proprietary software built on an open source platform. In this case, open source is only a marketing claim. The software only uses open source components or stacks like LAMP, but is otherwise no different than software built on proprietary stacks like Microsoft server products. As long as the software vendor doesn't change the actual open source part of the software, the "open" part doesn't apply. The term "open source" may indicate that the software runs in a certain environment but is not in of itself open source. It's more of a marketing thing. It makes the sour taste sweet!

The second way that open source is not really what it sounds like is when the open software is a brain damaged and you have to pay to get the real version. It's very clever marketing. Let others develop the core application but keep the value added (in other words really important) features for paying customers. It a bit like Wal-Mart. Bring in the crowds with a stripped down, cheap version of a product but immediately steer them to an upgraded version. Smart but not really what open source is about. This is not the same as selling open source to entice someone to buy something else entirely. Even if the purpose behind Sun or IBM's open source push is to get people to buy their servers, that doesn't necessarily mean that the software isn't open source. It's like offering free bananas when you buy milk (which supermarkets do).

Finally, open source is not open source when the copyright can be sold and made closed. There are a lot of concerns that Mozilla may end up like this. By looking for revenue through licensing, the fear is that one day the best Mozilla products will suddenly close. I personally don't share that fear but it's not unprecedented. JasperSoft also appears heading in this direction. While it would seem that this is impossible under the various open source licensing schemes, it's actually fairly easy. Simple start out offering a basic and advanced version, one free and the other not, and then slow or stop development on the free version. Sounds like Red Hat a little, eh?

In any event, none of these are bad business models. Unless someone makes money from these projects, development will eventually stall when the people developing them get real work to do. It's important, however, to go into open source with eyes wide open. Open source is evolving as a model. The purist vision of community developed, free software, for the masses (masses of geeks anyway... and I'm one of them) is not sustainable. Open source is a marketing come-on. A loss leader. It works great for experiments and small stuff but not for real enterprises. It's one thing to view open source as an alternative to other software. It's quite another thing altogether to see it as free and open.

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