The state of open source: The cost of commercialization

The challenges of the commercialization of open source projects

11 leaders from the open source and vendor communities discuss the current open source climate and outline the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Does widespread adoption and commercialization of open source software create new challenges or pressures for open source projects?

Javier Soltero: CEO Hyperic

Commercialization creates added pressures, especially for projects that are separate from the companies that provide commercial offerings around an otherwise free project. Frankly, the idea that commercial interests become involved in an OSS [open source software] project causes an allergic reaction to a lot of people. The reaction is mostly based on the idea that the commercial interests will overwhelm the decision-making process of the project. Realistically, without some amount of accountability, which comes best in the form of commercial interests, open source projects run the risk of becoming largely academic exercises that don't ship in time and have poor usability. How this accountability is applied into the project is the key factor in whether or not the commercialization will mean more success for the project or not.

Increased adoption of a project fuels the need for some level of governance and direction from the project. There's an interesting scenario in communities where tons of adoption bring way too many potentially conflicting interests, and without a proper governance structure, the project struggles because it cannot reconcile and prioritize the diverse requirements being thrown at it.

Both of these cases really don't apply to companies like ours [Hyperic] where the IP [intellectual property], the project, and the company are managed by the same entity. The community is open and works just like any other OSS project. The company is better able to balance the needs to fund and promote the community with the needs to deliver value to its customers.

Matt Asay: Vice president of business development Alfresco

It does, but I believe the very structure of open source mitigates against too much fallout from the success of open source. With all the M&A activity, for example, it's to be expected that some will jump into the market for a quick flip on their investment. But open source isn't something you can force. Community doesn't come easily, and turning adoption into paychecks also doesn't come easily. So I think we are seeing and will continue to see a bit of a gold-rush mentality in open source, but the exigencies of the open source business models will keep us from falling into the same rut that the Web 2.0 world has.

The thing I worry most about, however, is related to my prior point and involves attempts to shortcut open source. Many see it as a mere marketing gimmick. They provide a certain amount of open source code as a teaser to get someone to buy into the "real" version of their software. This diminishes the value of open source for customers and, in my experience, is the product of too little confidence in the open source model. I don't want customers to come to believe that open source is a new vendor-delivered parlor trick and lose interest.

Zack Urlocker: Vice president of products MySQL

There are projects and there are companies. Commercial growth is not everyone's top priority. Apache is hugely popular even though no one makes money off it. But I think there's greater awareness that you can build a business with open source today. That wasn't clear five or 10 years ago. Companies like Red Hat, Sun, IBM, make hundreds of millions in revenue due to open source software.

But you need to be clear if what you're doing is commercial or just a project. And if it's commercial, you need a business model that delivers value to paying customers. In effect, there are two classes of users in open source, and both are markets to pay attention to. There are your nonpaying community users and paying corporate customers. And you need to serve the needs of both groups at the same time. If you are not commercial enough, you end up like Apache. If you are not community-oriented enough, you'll never get the adoption and scale that works. Adoption must come first before there's an opportunity to commercialize. It's not easy to do this, but if you do it right, it works out well for both audiences.

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