Open Source Business: Altruistic or Profit Driven? - InformationWeek

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5/14/2007
12:12 PM
Seth Grimes
Seth Grimes
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Open Source Business: Altruistic or Profit Driven?

Open-source businesses are universally hybrids, whether they seek to profit from their altruism - those companies such as CentricCRM and Pentaho that sell support for software offerings that are completely free, open source - versus those such as SugarCRM and JasperSoft that are altruistic only to the point where they can attract paying customers for the closed parts of their software stacks.

While in Rome last week to teach a class on "Open Source for the Enterprise," I had the pleasure of getting together with Roberto Galoppini, who consults and writes a very perceptive blog on commercial open source. Check out, for instance, this useful table classifying licensing and revenue models of companies commercializing open source software (OSS).

Roberto thinks a lot about open-source business models, and he took issue with an over-simplification in my course materials. We agree that a third column is missing from a table I had prepared contrasting Open and Closed approaches, this table -

Characterizing Open as Altruistic and Closed as Profit-driven is, agreed, too black-and-white to explain the many businesses that seek to profit from open source. But on reflection, I like my table as-is. Open-source businesses are universally hybrids, whether they seek to profit from their altruism - those companies such as CentricCRM and Pentaho that sell support for software offerings that are completely free, open source - versus those such as SugarCRM and JasperSoft that are altruistic only to the point where they can attract paying customers for the closed parts of their software stacks. Open-source businesses span the table columns. Whether Open or Closed predominates in a given case depends on the particular business model.

But on further reflection, perhaps a third column is in order after all, a column headed Free: free as in "free speech," not as in "free beer." A thousand flowers have bloomed - perhaps 100,000 if you count extant General Public License (GPL) projects - and we recognize that the people who planted the seeds are still a guiding force.

That last thought was prompted by attorney Eben Moglen's Plone-conference speech from last fall. Moglen's speech, and the as-yet unresolved controversy over anti-mercantilist provisions of GPL version three drafts (which Moglen helped write), remind us that some very worthy individuals prize most highly not profit or altruism but rather (open-source) software's transformative, revolutionizing potential.

I pulled up a transcript of Moglen's speech. Here's the concluding paragraph:

"We've spent a long time hunting for freedom. Many of us lost our lives trying to get it more than once. We have sacrificed a great deal for generations, and the people who have sacrificed most we honor most when we can remember them. And some of them have been entirely forgotten. Some of us are likely to be forgotten too. And the sacrifices that we make aren't all going to go with monuments and honors. But they're all going to contribute to the end. The end is a good end if we do it right. We have been looking for freedom for a very long time. The difference is, this time, we win."

This was a lawyer addressing a conference of software geeks!? (For those who don't know, Moglen is Founding Director of the Software Freedom Law Center and was until recently Richard Stallman's enforcer at the Free Software Foundation.)

All I can say is, thank goodness there are people like Moglen working, well, not so much on my side or for those folks who legitimately seek to earn a living from open-source software but rather for those for whom open source is the only alternative to no software.Open-source businesses are universally hybrids, whether they seek to profit from their altruism - those companies such as CentricCRM and Pentaho that sell support for software offerings that are completely free, open source - versus those such as SugarCRM and JasperSoft that are altruistic only to the point where they can attract paying customers for the closed parts of their software stacks.

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