Death, Taxes, And Open Source Business Models - InformationWeek

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11/25/2008
06:43 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Death, Taxes, And Open Source Business Models

To the eternal list of death and taxes, we might as well add debates about open source licensing and sales. Two recent discussions about licensing and business models got me thinking again about what's suitable to what end, and how to interpret what you see other companies doing as a model for your own work.

To the eternal list of death and taxes, we might as well add debates about open source licensing and sales. Two recent discussions about licensing and business models got me thinking again about what's suitable to what end, and how to interpret what you see other companies doing as a model for your own work.

The two companies in question are MySQL and Alfresco. With the former, we have Zack Urlocker talking about a business model where the add-ons and the support are what cost you. With the latter, there's a standard core version (FOSS) and an enterprise version (not-FOSS), and the licensing for each sparked a bit of a debate about whether or not dual licensing creates as many problems as it solves. Thing is, I find myself thinking less about the specific advantages of any one strategy and more about the methodology of any given strategy at all.

My original line of thinking about open source licensing has gone like this: Whatever it is you do, make sure you are consistent. You are guaranteed to irk someone no matter which way you shift, so you're best off walking as straight a path as you can. If you start by offering an open source core with proprietary add-ons and for-pay support, then stick to that. If your deal is a totally open platform with support being the only thing people buy, then stick with that.

Sounds like good advice on paper, but how realistic is it? Business models change because the world itself changes. People make a great deal of noise about the record industry's business model being obsolete, but obsolescence is a moving target, and today's particular open source strategy may be tomorrow's curiosity -- at least for you. The other thing I worry about is how tough it can be to remain pragmatic in the face of potentially devastating criticism about your motives and intentions.

I'll pose this last thought in the form of a question: Is it OK to switch licensing and business models as long as you're not inconveniencing existing customers? Or is it better to pick one stance and stick with it come heck or high water?


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