Readers of this blog know that I am somewhat of a purist when it comes to the term “open source“. I believe that if you are in the business of generating most of your revenue by selling software licenses you can’t be an “open source vendor” (although there are a number of corner cases that make it difficult to categorize some companies).
Recently Matthew Aslett over at the 451 Group was kind enough to continue the discussion of what constitutes an open source vendor, and his post seems to have caused others to join in. While I don’t agree 100% with his conclusions, I’m glad people are at least talking about it. Of course, Matt Asay thinks we’re all silly and the question isn’t even worth considering, since open source and commercial software are basically the same thing.
The importance of trying to define an open source vendor becomes apparent when I see things like this open letter to President Obama from “15 leaders of open source projects and companies”.
Now I, of course, believe that government can definitely benefit from open source, but I’m not sure now is the time to be bringing it up. I mean the man is busy resurrecting the economy, trying to end two wars, and restoring the country’s international standing. Personally, I’d rather see the credit markets loosen up a bit first before really worrying about bringing open source to the government.
And I have to wonder about the motives of the signers, since many head up commercial open core software companies. I know they mean well, but couldn’t this be just a publicity stunt to get their commercial software products on the government’s radar?
Let’s suppose that the USA issues an open source mandate requiring that open source solutions be considered in any software purchase. Can you imagine how that conversation might go?
USA Government Guy: Okay, we have this mandate to move to open source solutions, so I want to know if you can help me.
Open Core Vendor: Sure. I’m certain we can.
USA: Okay, does your software do this, this and this?
Vendor: Of course, it’s our core competency.
USA: Great. Now this is important … can it do that?
Vendor: Yes …
USA: Excellent, now concerning …
Vendor: … in our enterprise version.
USA: Excuse me?
Vendor: That is only available in our enterprise version.
USA: What’s an “enterprise version”?
Vendor: Well, we have two versions of our software: the community version and the enterprise version, and the enterprise version has more features.
USA: Well we definitely need that, so I guess we’ll need the enterprise version. It’s still open source, right?
Vendor: We have built a great open source community.
USA: But the enterprise version … I get the source code, right?
Vendor: Well, no. That’s our community version.
USA: I don’t understand. I can modify the enterprise version, correct?
Vendor: I don’t see how, we don’t let you see the code.
USA: Are there limits on how I can distribute the enterprise version?
Vendor: Oh yeah, we’ll charge you a license for each device you need it for.
USA: Charge me?
Vendor: Yeah, see, you have to understand, there are three types of people in open source. Those who write code, those who pay for code and freeloaders. Those who write code we call “our community” and well, freeloaders aren’t useful for much at all, but you get to be in the third group, which we call customers.
USA: I thought open source was about sharing, both the costs, the benefits and the goals, and that it created such great things as the Linux kernel and the Apache web server. How does this apply to your product?
Vendor: You can’t get good code unless someone pays for it.
USA: Okay, I’ll bite: how much does your enterprise version cost?
Vendor: $500 …
USA: That’s not too bad, I thought it was going to be …
Vendor: … per device.
USA: What ?!? I have hundreds of thousands of devices!
Vendor: Yeah, that’s why they call it a stimulus package. I’m stimulated just thinking about it.
USA: Man, this open source thing is going to get expensive. Well, what’s the life of the product? At least I can spread the cost over a couple of years.
Vendor: Maybe I wasn’t clear. That was $500 per device per year. We work on a “subscription” model.
USA: I am so confused. If I have to pay you that much each year, I might as well go with the solution from IBM or Microsoft like I always have.
Vendor: But we’re open source.
USA: Some of your product is open source, but it seems like it exists solely to drive people to your commercial “enterprise” product. Both Microsoft and IBM create some open source software, so how are you different?
Vendor: We put “open source” on our website.
Ooooh, I’m going to hell for that one.