I have been reading the debate about “Open Core” which was stimulated by Jorg Janke post about Compiere. http://www.compieresource.com/2010/06/compiere-open-source-failed.html. The open source community owes Jorge Janke a huge debt of thanks for his frank discussion of what happened at Compiere. People are rarely eager to share the details of their failures. I think that the most important lesson from his posting is the critical importance of management that understands its market. The venture capital industry learned this lesson long ago. When making a decision about an investment, venture capitalists focus on the management team; they understand that the technology is important, but great execution with mediocre technology will win over poor execution with great technology. This rule has been established by decades (and thousands) of investments. Open source companies pose particular challenges for management because of the critical role of communities and their expectations in the success of the company. These issues are very different from traditional software companies. Compiere is a very telling example of the nature of those challenges.
This post has launched a discussion of the “open core” business model and whether it is true “open source” http://www.computerworlduk.com/community/blogs/index.cfm?entryid=3047&blogid=41. I have great respect for Simon Phipps and his contributions to the open source community, but I strongly disagree with his statements. I am very concerned that if he is successful, end users will have fewer software programs under open source licenses. This result arises because of the law of unintended consequences: the successful demonization of the open core model will result in fewer venture capital investments in companies using open source licenses.
In the interest of transparency, I work with over twenty open source companies, most of who were funded by venture capitalists and the vast majority of which use the “open core” model. These companies have provided significant value to end users through the software licensed under open source licenses. Simon states: “But to use the package effectively in production, a business probably won’t find the functions of the core package sufficient, even in the (usual) case of the core package being highly capable.” This statement is simply incorrect. I have sat through many Board meetings and, in fact, the conversion rate from “open source” to “commercial” licenses is generally less than 10% for these companies. Thus, more than nine out of ten end users find the functionality of the open source version satisfactory.
Simon says that open core does not provide software freedom for “end users”. Yet, nothing prevents the end users of the open source version to modify it and distribute it or otherwise exercise the rights under the license. In fact, Compiere demonstrates the fallacy of this position because it created two different forks. Simon complains about the lack of access to the “commercial extensions” of open core programs. However, as Marten Mickos notes, the effect on the end user of the employment of the Apache license is the same as the open core model: commercial extensions are not made available to the community. http://webmink.com/2010/06/24/links-for-2010-06-24/#comment-870. I agree with Matt Aslett that the open core model does not violate the Open Source Definition, either literally or in spirit. http://blogs.the451group.com/opensource/2010/07/02/open-core-is-not-a-crime/. (please note that this position is a personal one and does not reflect the view of the OSI which has not yet taken a position on this issue). Simon appears to be suggesting that only a “copyleft” approach in which all of the software must be available under an open source license to meet the Open Source Definition, which is simply incorrect (the Open Source Definition was a reaction to the limitations imposed by the copyleft approach).
I agree with Matt at one level that ultimately this debate will be decided by the market (i.e. end users). However, I don’t agree that it is futile. Most venture capitalists will not invest in companies that do not use the open core model, so if the open source community leaders are successful in demonizing the open core model, they will decrease the willingness of venture capitalists to invest in open source companies (just a reminder, that a recent book, Mastering the VC Game, recently noted that venture capitalists typically look at 300 companies for each company in which they invest). Although not all open source projects need venture capital support, venture capitalists have been a significant source of support for open source projects (as well as new software made available under open source licenses) and end users have been the beneficiaries of their investment. If the open core model is no longer considered open source, the biggest losers will be the end users; they will lose the opportunity to benefit from that investment and that is certainly not consistent with the goals of open source
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