Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Open Source and For-Profit Companies

My friend Dan Levine over at Accel recently wrote the following comment on a HackerNews post about getting paid by for-profit companies for working on open source software:

How many core developers work somewhere besides 10gen? I know there are a few contributors who work on drivers but it seems like nearly all of the contributors work at 10gen.

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of “open source” projects that don’t feel open source at all. Chrome, Android and Mongo all jump to mind. In each case one company does nearly all of the work and dictates what the product does and where it goes.

It is true that I can fork as I wish, but the odds of my indie fork being able to keep up or compete long enough to gain escape velocity seem unbelievably low. It seems that whatever 10gen or Google want to do on these projects they can do with little chance of reprisal from any open source community.

Perhaps there should be a new name for software whose source is available but is effectively controlled by a for-profit entity.

Dan’s right, the most influential open source software projects created in the last 5 years all have some kind of corporate tie.  The most common (and safest) business model for this approach is give the software away for free and sell support and services, though sometimes you see a dual-license approach like what Sencha does with ExtJS.

But, the most important part of Dan’s observation is that open sourcing the product inside a business is now becoming normal, and that’s wonderful.  Dan seems to be slightly pessimistic about this new world of corporate-controlled open source projects (I take that hint from his desire to rename this phenomenon), but it’s 10X better than having 5 companies all building the same product independently of each other in a closed manner, like what we saw in the column-store DBMS market over the past decade (Vertica, and companions).

It’s a big deal that a for-profit company is willing to let all their customers and competitors see their source code and reuse it (in accordance with their license). We shouldn’t take that for granted. The basic human instinct around IP is to keep it secret or erect artificial protections. These companies are fighting that instinct.

If we need a new word for this type of behavior to distinguish it from open source software, then I hope it’s a word with strong positive connotations, because it’s a great thing for for-profit companies to be doing, especially when most for-profit technologies companies today are standing on the shoulders of open source giants of the past. 


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