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Open Source vs. Business

Open Source vs. Business

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October 17, 2007 - CIO - The mid-century saw the kernels of collaborative and open exchange of source code, eventually leading to the birth of the Internet in 1969. This paved the way for a culture of shared knowledge; decades later, the Open Source Initiative continues to argue for the practical benefits of openly shared source code. In 1998, the term "open source" was evangelized by a group of developers attending O'Reilly's Freeware Summit. Developers and leaders of some of the most influential free and open-source projects convened to discuss the confusion surrounding the sometimes synonymous terms open source, free software and freeware. It seemed early on that the public was having trouble understanding that businesses often stood behind open-source projects and that paid services were sometimes necessary. Despite this long history, the confusion surrounding the cohabitation of open source and business remains.

As the Internet became mainstream in the 1990s, individuals found themselves surfing the Net from their workplace and homes. The Internet quickly became more than a vessel of shared knowledge, it became one of the most lucrative mediums of commercial profit since the television half a century before. Inversely, it also brought the boom of freeware sites, which allowed users to freely download everything from screen savers to office suites. Users eagerly snatched up all the free goodies the Internet offered, and soon people expected to find virtually any kind of software they might need for free. The term freeware continued to snake its way through the common lexicon. The open-source community and its projects gained popularity, but faced a sea of indignant users outraged at having to pay for support or documentation. Users failed to understand why they had to pay for services related to a freely downloaded piece of software, and failed to understand that open source doesn't refer to cost, but to openly, usually freely available source code. Once again, the game of semantics reared its ugly head as the battle between the connotations of free, open and business heated up.

Everyone loves free stuff, and the open-source community certainly advocates the free and open exchange of source code. The biggest issue is the expectation that everything is free. The public seems to have morphed the concept of open-source code with free downloads and extended that expectation to everything related to the project. Leaders of open-source projects are finding themselves constantly defending the necessity to generate resources to support their projects while keeping them truly open source and free of licensing fees. While indisputably vital, there comes a point when volunteer contributors can only take a project so far. A business model has to be applied to provide a firm foundation on which the open-source project can stand. Many open-source projects have turned toward a whole product approach, combining the open-source project with a business that supplies support, training, documentation, certification and a range of other professional services. This generates the revenue needed to keep the project viable, but it brings about a whole new set of issues.

Those who grasp that open source is about openly sharing source code so that others may build on it and benefit from others' efforts understand that supporting the business is inherently supporting the open-source project itself. In these businesses, developers are paid to maintain code and provide bug fixes, allowing the project to grow, remain strong and maintain stability. It also provides a road map—a planned course of action for growth—to focus and foster communication and collaboration in the community. Organizations benefit from the support, training and documentation paid employees generate, and without these businesses the professional services would not be possible. Again, volunteer contributors can only do so much, and asking members of the project community to take time off from their day jobs to provide free services is asking a lot. Who would, in turn, support them and pay their bills? They are professionals, after all, not pan handlers. An open-source project is certainly dependent on community, but that community needs a support source of its own. Someone—or an army of people—needs to keep the project going strong while they are pursuing their own goals and looking after their own responsibilities. The basis of community is fellowship—a group of people working together for a common interest. It would be a shame if the very people who claim to be supporters of open source were the same ones who cripple their community through greed.

The next time an employee of an open-source-related business is challenged by a user who doesn't want to pay for professional services, that employee should seize the opportunity to turn that issue back around. Ask that user, "Can you take next week off to travel to Cleveland for a week of onsite training?" Or, "Can I pencil you in for January through June of 2008 to write a user manual for us? For free, of course, because nobody will want to pay for it." No business with the most primitive understanding of customer service would say such a thing, but perhaps it's time someone did. When asking for professional services such as support or training, it is important to remember the word professional. A business is comprised of professionals who are paid to perform jobs or services. Open source is alive and strong, and paying for professional services related to an open-source project hardly undermines what open source is all about. On the contrary, supporting the businesses that employ the men and women who write the code, documentation and conduct the training directly related to the open-source project is directly funding that project itself. It is a shame to see a good open-source project flounder because it lacks resources. These businesses aren't out to fleece the public; the open-source community sees to that. These businesses are born out of necessity and obligation, as a means to provide reliable sustenance to open-source projects and its communities who so readily make themselves available for the benefit of others. The next time you find yourself using a piece of open-source software, think about the thousands of hours that dozens of people contributed so you could use it for free. Consider purchasing those services from that business to support its effort. And always remember, it's an open-source project, not an open-source business.

JT Smith is a renowned open source guru and the president of Plain Black Corporation, the developer and distributor of the WebGUI Content Engine. He speaks internationally on topics related to Web content management.