Two Problems with Free

Things have been delightfully busy here at OpenNMS, and with Dev Jam coming up the level of excitement around the project is pretty high.

One of the people coming to Dev Jam, Matt Raykowski (OGP) send me a link today to a Slashdot article bringing up the “open source vs. open core” debate again, this time with respect to SugarCRM. Apparently some of the new features of the product are only available to paying customers.

I’ve been staying out of the recent resurgence in the “open core” debate (check out the 451 Group for a summary). If these fauxpen source vendors would simply call their product “open core” versus “open source” there wouldn’t be anything to talk about, but they need to market themselves as “open source” as opposed to “just another commercial software company with a great API” to get any traction.

The Slashdot article quotes Martin Schneider of SugarCRM stating “We are an open source company and it’s why we’re better than proprietary companies” which is total crap. Just being open source doesn’t make you better, but the fact that he would sum up his pitch that way just goes to show how much the term “open source” is tied to their marketing.

In contrast, take a look at OpenNMS. OpenNMS is a very powerful, flexible and scalable network management application platform that happens to be free and open source software. For many large enterprises and carriers, that makes it a better solution (especially when the alternatives charge per managed device), but for many smaller companies they’d be better off with Solarwinds’ Orion, a commercial software product, or something similar. Just being open source doesn’t automatically make OpenNMS the right choice and better than a proprietary solution for everyone.

Personally, in the case of SugarCRM, we struggled with the community edition for six months before signing up with Salesforce. For us it wasn’t a better solution even though Salesforce isn’t open.

In looking through the comments on the Slashdot article (yes, I know, I know) it seems there is some debate over if the paid version might really be open source. If it is, that seems like a really stupid business model, since if the paid version is freely distributable (a requirement of the OSI’s open source definition which I’m sticking by until someone offers a better alternative) then they could theoretically only sell it once and that person can choose to make it available to everyone. I doubt that Larry Augustin (the dark lord of open source) would do something like that since if anyone can make a buck from open core it’s him.

Anyway, in my mind Brian Prentice of Gartner put the whole open core debate to bed with his “Emperor’s New Clothes” post, so enough about that.

What I want to whine about today is two problems I continually face running a business on free and open source software, namely that pesky term “free”. If only Richard Stallman had added three more letters to coin “freedom software” my life would be so much easier.

The first issue is that when people here “free” they think cheap or not very good. In the best case they wonder “what’s the catch?” In many of our deployments we’ve replaced OpenView and Tivoli simply because they could not do what OpenNMS can, so even though it is free software that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

The second one arises when it is time to actually spend money on free software, such as with a support contract or professional services. A common deployment scenario is that a network manager or system admin needs a tool like OpenNMS. They go to their boss and ask if they can install it, and the boss asks how much it costs. When the answer is “free” they go, “Sure, knock yourself out.”

Now once the system is installed and there is a need for services or support, they go back to their boss and ask to spend some money, to which the boss says “I thought you said it was free?”

Open core is dead – the writing is on the wall – what with companies like Compiere going back to their commercial software roots and the VC market that funds it rapidly shrinking. The challenge now is to get across the value of free software coupled with commercial services in lieu of a commercial software solution, open core or not.

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