Mind Your Own Business (Model)

Achat de Chevaux

I'm not sure why, but the "there is no open source business model" discussion has woken up again, with Matthew Aslett and Stephen Walli in particular chipping in views. Last time this debate arose was when 451 published a report of the same name. That report made quite a few people in the FOSS communities unhappy because it propagated the "open core" view that a business with an open source element somewhere in its activities (what Stephe calls a tool) could be described as an "open source business".


Why is there no "open source business model"? Because open source is not a business. It's the same oxymoronic thinking as the question "how can you make money if you give the software away for free", which simply can't be answered without correcting the questioner's worldview.

To assert there is "an open source business model" is to lose sight of the nature of open source. It may have been a fair thing to do when open source was a novelty to business minds, but even considering there could be such a thing leads people to misunderstand open source and treat the exceptions - like MySQL - as the rule. Not that it's wrong to monetise ubiquity at the point of deployment by delivering the value that allows scaling (enabling adoption-led behaviour). It's just most open source community members don't do that.

Synchronisation of Interest Elements

An open source project is a community of participants that gathers around a free software commons, with each participant aligning an element of their interests with the interests of all the others there, in order to collaborate. The OSI-approved license gives them the freedom to do so. Each participant comes to the community with their own individual interest, which in the case of a business will stem from their own business model. The community itself is about the Free code in the commons. Just about the code - all other matters are subjugated (at least in working communities!).

An open source community is thus a mix of many motivations. If there's only one motivation present - only one "business model" - it's unlikely there is any true community either. People only care about the business model when there's only one business; in a real community the only way to get along is to mind your own business (model) and not try to mess with anyone else's.


I don't know why it has resurfaced again now either. I blame Stephen. ;-)

Posted by Matt on September 23, 2009 at 01:33 AM PDT #

Hi Simon,

You're right - there's no open source business model. However, there are business models for how to make money while giving software away. It is nothing more than semantics to quibble with the name "open source business model", what people mean by that is "make money by giving software away".

It isn't foolish to ask what business models work in that situation. While there have been some successful businesses built around free (as in beer) software, there have also been more than a few that have failed. There aren't many big businesses built around this model. A few famous ones have captured peoples' imaginations.

I don't agree that the only successful communities are the ones where business interests are subjugated. Ultimately everyone must eat. Business interests always are at the center of any code base that has a significant investment of time and money for which people expect a return, no matter the license. Code bases that don't live up to business expectations lose the support of their sponsors, and a lot of the development effort goes away along with that support. Communities that don't care about business don't care about survival.

Posted by Rich Sands on September 23, 2009 at 04:44 AM PDT #

Hi Rich. I think you're missing the point here. Consider Apache Httpd. No-one there mentions business models, yet everyone contributing has one. In a healthy community, asking the question "how do you make money by giving it away" is laughable becuase /it's not being given away, it's being shared/ by all the people who make money because it exists. For the largest projects, their very existence makes a huge market function in which their work has value.

Every contributor to Httpd has a different reason for being there, and none of them care about the reason the rest have because they are all paying their own way and making their own work pay.

Open source does not have a business model. Businesses that use open source have a value proposition associated with it. There is a huge philosophical difference between those two things.

Posted by Simon Phipps on September 23, 2009 at 05:44 AM PDT #

I knew you'd use httpd as an example - because nobody "makes money" from it. You're right, everyone contributing has a business model - in the case of httpd, the commercial interests that (I think) contribute a big piece of the effort have thrown in the towel on monetizing this bit of commodity infrastructure. Contributing insures they have a voice in the project's direction and prevents their competition from gaining advantage.

But the exception proves the rule. Most big, meaty projects have a corporate sponsor or two that expect to monetize their substantial contributions. If they don't make $, usually they stop contributing, and those projects are often too big for "the community" to maintain without corporate sweat and lucre. Take away the ROI and the project stalls. So "the community" had better care how the companies putting in the big investment make their money.

You don't think "the communities" of OpenSolaris, Java, OpenOffice, etc. are wondering how much Oracle will continue to invest, and thinking about how much $ they'll expect to make, and how?

Posted by Rich Sands on September 23, 2009 at 06:44 AM PDT #

Except that's not true! Httpd is heavily monetised by its contributors, none of whom have "thrown in the towel" - otherwise they would not be there. Open source has few volunteers.

IBM, for example, uses Httpd in Websphere. Sun now employs Httpd committers for product reasons. And Httpd is not an isolated case; in fact, in order to leave the Incubator, any Apache project must demonstrate a diversity of participants. Examine any Apache project, or most of the projects in Debian's repositories, and you will find a project where monetisation is the private business of the individual contributors.

The truth is that the exceptions are projects with a single sponsor. The vast majority of FOSS projects don't have one. And this matters, because believing one has the right to monetise a project leads one to believe one has the right to direct, which leads to the assumption of the right to control, which leads to stagnation (or forking) in the end as the oxygen of community - getting out of it what you need so that you keep putting in to it - is taken away.

Posted by Simon Phipps on September 23, 2009 at 08:03 AM PDT #

Merely shipping httpd (because there's no better alternative) is not monetizing it. How does IBM make $ from httpd in Websphere?

There are plenty of small projects that deliver useful tools, infrastructure, apps, etc. But the big stuff that runs enterprises or operates cellphones etc. is single sponsor, or in a foundation with corporate sponsors.

Even the big projects that look to be independent really aren't - as you point out, there are corporate sponsors who pay for much of httpd's development. They aren't doing it out of altruism. They're doing it to keep the playing field level. Not exactly monetizing it, but it is for economic reasons.

Software doesn't write itself. Big software costs big $. Big $ demands a ROI. Open source does not repeal the truths of a capitalist global economy. That is not a bad thing, I think. I know you disagree, but without $, developers would not eat. That is why it matters what the business model is for those big projects, and why I think it is in the community's interest to at least not get in the way of it.

Posted by Rich Sands on September 23, 2009 at 02:03 PM PDT #

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