Gartner Smackdown on Open Core

I’ve been saying for years now that open source is more than just a marketing term, and I’ve probably bored most of my three readers by harping on it.

While it may not seem to matter to most people, it is dreadfully important to my business that open source not become synonymous with fauxpen source (or to use the more politically correct term – open core). It is hard enough to educate the market on the values of open source software (if it is free, how can it be good?) without having the waters muddied with the confusion brought on with the hybrid open source/commercial software model.

But then again, I am not a powerful voice in open source (at least based on my Twitter followers) so why should people listen to me?

However, as far as analysts go, there are few that are held as in high esteem as Gartner. Today, Michael Coté sent me a link to a Gartner blog post by Brian Prentice called “Open-Core: The Emperor’s New Clothes“.


There is a gem of a quote in every paragraph, so just go read the article, but here are some of my favorites:

You’ll soon realize that the fabric making up the garb of their stated innovation is a fabrication. They’ll then be exposed for exactly who they are – a good old fashion software vendor. Just like every other one you’ve come to know.

I have asked, on numerous occasions, for someone from the open core front to explain to me the different between their model and the traditional software model of having an open API to add functionality while keeping the best parts of the application closed. HP was able to create a huge environment around OpenView this way, without claiming to be open source (even though they use “open” in their name).

Furthermore I have personally been told by one such open-core provider that the reason a new feature, which was clearly of value to all users, was only being provided in the paid-for, proprietary version was that they “had investors they needed to satisfy.”

This sounds familiar. (grin)

Open source projects such as OpenNMS can provide a powerful, scalable and flexible solution. While I never want to lead with it when talking to potential clients, it also has a large cost benefit. The problem with the open core model is what Gartner calls the “super-size trigger”.

Besides, what you already know is that this type of functional separation creates what Gartner refers to as a “super-size trigger.” The minute you require a feature only available in the full version then the entirety of your commitment needs to be scaled up and re-costed to the full-cost offering.

Since open source is not a marketing term, these hybrid vendors are only trying to ride the hype. Brian addresses that, too:

This is where the hype starts to creep in. The idea that a functionally complete, proprietary solution is somehow unique because it was built atop an open source base fails to recognize the fact that many proprietary solutions are being built using open source components

But what about the communities around these open core projects. Aren’t they different than a commercial software product?

Even the very definition of “community” is being adapted to suit the open core narrative. What has largely interested the corporate IT world is the concept of a community as a collection of code contributors working outside a normal project/company structure. But now open core providers are extending the term community to include users and even resellers. That, of course, is what we’ve all been calling a software ecosystem for the last twenty years. Same old, same old – just co-opted terminology used to describe it.

I have no real problem with open core as long as they don’t use the term open source. It is simply another commercial software business model. But when they refer to it as open source it causes confusion in the marketplace for my business, and that’s what bothers me. From the article:

Be clear, there’s nothing nefarious going on with open core. It’s just that there’s just nothing particularly new or innovative going on either.

I believe that all commercial software companies will start focusing on creating a much larger “software ecosystem” which will include access to some source code, new APIs, social networks, etc. But it will not represent an open source business.

It’s nice to see Gartner putting it out there in such a straightforward and blunt manner.

One thought on “Gartner Smackdown on Open Core

  1. If a company releases the bulk of their intellectual property under an open license that allows independent modification, re-distribution and/or forking without requiring patent or other licensing grants, in my opinion they meet the important criteria for being open source.

    Having read your arguments on this topic several times, there are a few points I hope I can respond to from a different perspective.

    (1) “Keeping the best parts of the application closed.” I disagree with the qualifier, “best”. There may be features only useful to customers preferring commercial software over open software, features that require a licensing purchase from a third-party before they can be packaged with the product in question, or features with development costs that can only supported by classic commercial sales. These closed features can compliment an “open core” and provide value to customers and the software vendor. Calling them the “best” features seems arbitrary and not useful to a clear discussion of the open core model.

    (2) If you want to build clarity around the meaning of “open source,” why not use an established definition, for example If a standalone and independently useful subset of a product is distributed under the above terms, that subset can reasonably can be concluded to be open source. If a business is built around that open source product, it is reasonably described as an open source business.

    (3) The difference between an open-core model and a closed/traditional shrink wrapped, licensed business model is clear. An open core model, distributed under an OSI approved license, gives broad rights for modification, forking, redistribution to the general public not provided by a closed software model. Further, an open-core model doing open development with public repositories, public bug tracking, public email/forum/engineering discussion venues allows third-party participation, comment and review. This development model creates relationships between third party developers working on the same code and creates non-commercial relationships between the open-core business and the users of its products — all of which differ from the classic shrink wrapped commercial software business model.

    I agree with you that many, (though I doubt all), commercial software companies will build hybrid open/closed models. These models, when providing a truly open core set of components, allow commercial relationships with customers that desire (or require) a commercial relationship and community relationships with the ecosystem of developers and users that find value in open source models.

    I don’t see how denigrating these efforts with terms like “fauxpen source” is informative or useful.

    Thank you for a chance to respond,

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