Dear Mr. President: Buy My Software, please

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.

5 thoughts on “Dear Mr. President: Buy My Software, please

  1. USA: But the enterprise version … I get the source code, right?
    Vendor: Well, no. That’s our community version.

    For anyone thinking it… This is *no* how MySQL Enterprise or even Redhat Enterprise Linux works. Since I was directed here via a PlanetMySQL clearly I was thinking of it. Source code is still available to anyone who has rights to binaries. MySQL Enterprise and RHEL are released under the GPL as always. This is how Dorsal Source, CentOS and the like can exist.

    There’s no reason that a company can’t produce both an open source app. that meets the needs of the vast majority and closed source applications as add-ons and support services that provide supplementary functionality. There’s also no reason that the add-ons would have to apply to every single instance of the open source app in deployment.

  2. Tarus,

    Usually I think you’re spot on, but I think you are 180 degrees in the wrong direction with “but I’m not sure now is the time to be bringing it up.” Now is the *best* time to be bringing this up. The US Government and particularly state governments, with their universities, waste *tons* of money on proprietary software. Particularly in education, the lack of diversity causes people to learn tools rather than how to use tools. The basic functioning of most desktops is the same, yet people are scared to the point of actually crippling their ability.

    A big part of this mess is people not acting responsibly. I think continuing to use proprietary software in our government is acting irresponsibly.

    I agree that this isn’t the most important issue, but I think Obama can, and *MUST* be able to handle more than one thing at a time.

    So really, maybe we don’t disagree that much, just with the wording…but I felt compelled to respond.



  3. @douglasawh – My only issue with bringing it up now is that it might get lost in the “100 days”. In the past there have been a number of states that have tried to pass legislation along the lines of “you must choose an open source solution unless you can make a case that none exist” but the software lobby has blocked it.

    Like it or not, the current software industry bases its revenue on selling software licenses. Should we make a forced and sudden change to open source I’m not sure that these companies can reinvent themselves quickly enough and that would cost jobs. We’re an example that it is possible to both provide 100% free and open software and to make money at the same time, but we’re the exception at the moment. In order to get out of this mess we need more spending, not less, so I am willing to table the question of open source in government for, say, a year until things settle out a little more.

    Just thought I’d let you know my reasoning, but you make a valid point.

Comments are closed.