Software // Enterprise Applications
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12/18/2007
03:20 PM
Nelson King
Nelson King
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Isn't 'Commercial Open Source' an Oxymoron?

"Commercial open-source software" certainly sounds like a contradiction in terms. The phrase "free and open" is part of the definition of open source software, which translated into real terms means that people can download the software and source code at will and for no charge. In most instances, this is how open-source works. Where it may work less well is for the enterprise.

"Commercial open-source software" certainly sounds like a contradiction in terms. The phrase "free and open" is part of the definition of open source software, which translated into real terms means that people can download the software and source code at will and for no charge. In most instances, this is how open-source works. Where it may work less well is for the enterprise.

Here's what Bill Hilf, Microsoft's General Manager of Windows Server Marketing and Platform Strategy has to say in a recent Information Week interview: "When people buy commercial software, really what they are buying is a guarantee. You're buying a guarantee that what you have will perform, and has been tested and there's someone you can call up, and if things go really bad someone's liable if something doesn't work. You're buying this ecosystem of accountability."Interesting phrase this "ecosystem of accountability" because "the open-source ecosystem" is almost standard jargon. It implies that a system of reinforcing elements supports accountability; certainly in Microsoft's case this is true, if complicated. However, the take-home moral of the story is that for the enterprise (big or small), open-source has more risk, commercial software also has risk but you can do something about it, like sue. Of course, this argument has been around since the concept of open-source first threatened the hegemony of commercial software. Despite being a gross over-simplification, the argument does have traction with enterprise IT.

Recently Adobe announced a new open source product called BlazeDS, which is drawn from a proprietary product LiveCycle Data Services ES. BlazeDS offers developers free and open source access to data and media plumbing for RIAs (Rich Internet Applications), which is used in conjunction with Adobe Flex SDK (also free and open source). Adobe simultaneously announced LiveCycle Data Services, Community Edition, which turns out to be the BlazeDS open-source approach plus warranty and support by paid subscription. Explicitly, Adobe will market this version to enterprises. This is an example of what might be called "commercial open-source software."

It's not a new trick, of course. Commercial distributions of Linux provide an essentially open source product but have built their business model on charging for additional services and a certain amount of product warranty. IBM is another company with many open-source products and projects that blend into paid consultancy and support options. IBM's approach might be called "embedded"-open-source software embedded in a much larger commercial software matrix. It's an approach that's becoming a common practice; Microsoft, IBM, BEA, Adobe, Oracle and many others do it. The bet is that free open-source software will attract future clients for the commercial software and services. As such, it's a marketing tool.

For the enterprise IT shop, the issue for "commercial open-source" is how tightly the open-source material is bound to the commercial stuff. If purchasing accountability is optional, that's one thing; if entering the "ecosystem of accountability" is virtually inevitable, that's another.

Nelson King has been a software developer for more than twenty-five years. Further complications include being a computer-industry analyst, product reviewer and author (of nine books on database programming). He's been writing for Intelligent Enterprise (and its precursors) for more than ten years. Write him at nelsonking@earthlink.net"Commercial open-source software" certainly sounds like a contradiction in terms. The phrase "free and open" is part of the definition of open source software, which translated into real terms means that people can download the software and source code at will and for no charge. In most instances, this is how open-source works. Where it may work less well is for the enterprise.

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