Further thoughts on defining “open source vendor”

Savio Rodrigues picked up the ball and ran with it, furthering the discussion on what makes a vendor an “open source vendor”. I left a few comments to Savio’s post that I thought were worth repeating here.

First off, Savio altered my definition slightly to ensure that the likes of Google and Amazon could not be considered “open source vendors”. This is what he came up with:

    “An ‘open source vendor’ is one that develops, contributes to, and distributes open source licensed products, which are integral to driving its revenue.”

Which I think does a good job, although as Savio notes:

    “The problem with this definition is how it applies to companies such as IBM, HP, and Accenture. They all contribute to and distribute Linux and other open source in order to generate revenue from servers or implementation services. As such, they would be considered “open source vendors” by my definition.”

As I commented, The discussion around The five stages of community open source engagement considered the fact that different business units within the same company can exhibit different attitudes to open source.

Consider Actuate and its BIRT business, which is a small but growing business based around the Eclipse BIRT project ($15.4m in 2008, compared to $131m for the company as a whole).

We will see more and more companies taking this approach to open source I believe. Progress and its FUSE business is another.

I wouldn’t consider Actuate or Progress (or IBM or HP) to be “open source vendors” so there’s a line to be drawn somewhere.

Perhaps the definition needs to be refined to take that into account, although I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to decide to draw that line (except for my own purposes).

Carlo Daffara, who has been at the forefront in terms of examining open source business strategies, commented:

    “We used a very similar one for our work in classification of business models. We set an (approximate) threshold on 33% of revenues from OSS-related activities, as in our informal experiments with clustering around revenues we found that was the ‘barrier’ across groups (the light-OSS companies like IBM or HP) and the OSS-based companies (like Alfresco, Actuate, etc.)”

As Carlo admits, however, “having a strict number as a barrier is problematic given obtaining realistic data on percentage of revenue is quite difficult.”

Meanwhile Andrew Lampitt asked whether this wasn’t just a re-hash of the “Is Obama black enough debate” referenced by Shaun Connolly in relation to the debate over types of open source community.

To which I would have to admit that yes, defining what constitutes an “open source vendor” is mostly an academic exercise that it of interest to only a few people. I have to do this sometimes to define the vendors that we cover in some of our reports, while others are trying to do it to meet their own commercial ends.

On our recent podcast Raven commented that a strict definition was not necessarily a good thing, echoing Shaun’s perspective that “Like the software these communities produce, the definition of community needs the chance to evolve and change in ways that we can’t even imagine.”

I was reminded of the phrase “you can’t be a little bit pregnant”. Can you be “a little bit open source”? Some would say no. I believe you can, and that there are degrees of openness with OpenNMS at one end and Microsoft at the other and Hyperic and Actuate and IBM somewhere in between.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


#1 Benjamin Reed on 02.09.09 at 11:47 am

I agree that you can be “a little bit open source” — and the real issue is one you touch on — our current use of the phrase “open source vendor” doesn’t have enough nuance to really get through the idea that there *are* many different ways to be an open-source company from OpenNMS to Microsoft.

Instead, anyone doing business with open-source software is lumped together, and all are reaping the “reward” of being treated as an open-source company even though some of those companies are much more community-friendly than others. In our case, our “pure openness” and large and healthy development community outside of the “commercial side” is a significant part of what differentiates OpenNMS from other open source network management tools. We don’t hold you ransom with per-node fees for enterprise features, they’re available to everyone. I also believe we have the best software of the lot, but that is, as always, debatable, depending on what you need from your NMS. 😉

In the end, it’s not so much that it’s wrong to consider the Zenosses and the IBMs of the world as having a relationship with open-source software, and I’m sure their community benefits from it as well as them benefitting from the community, I just think it’s worth coming up with a language that expresses the differences better.

“Open source” was born out of the ambiguity of “free software” in the business world in the first place; it’s now clear that it too is not enough to describe the many facets of using open source software as part of your business strategy.

#2 ryan on 02.09.09 at 4:44 pm

I would agree that defining a company as open source is academic except I predict it will become a more important issue as the OS becomes more popular with the general public, if open source becomes synonymous with free-ware in searches contributors will have trouble routing out actual projects from people abusing the term to promote pay to use software, and users will be turned off.

#3 Carlo Daffara on 02.10.09 at 4:06 am

Actually our reason for having such a definition is not academic at all- we derived it from our modeling activities, trying to find how the adoption of OSS changes the business perspectives and processes of companies. We found that there are several stages (already discussed, for example, in the work of Carbone) and to each stage we identified a corresponding set of guidelines to help companies in improving profitability (this is really part of our “OSS business counseling” activity).

Having an “OSS company” definition is also useful whenever you need to create participation rules related to open source business environments, and don’t want to appear “discriminatory” but can’t risk criticism from the more vocal FLOSS participants. Let’s say that you want to create a OSS district, or a consortia, but don’t want to risk your image with potentially non-OSS participants- you cannot set a financial barrier (like a entry fee) as it would hamper smaller companies and not hinder at all more cash-rich ones; and you can’t simply accept every participant. So, you set a barrier (like the 33% we used in the past) on percentage of revenues obtained from OSS, and those that are over that are accepted, while the rest is included in the “wait list” until they move over that level. It is transparent and cannot be argued with easily (the actual 33% number may be debated, but it’s more academic at that point). It works very well in industrial districts or in public-funded activities, where criticism is common; in our experiments and consulting work, the more vocal critics had an actual 0% revenue from OSS… and when the fact was made public, all criticism quickly disappeared.

#4 Matthew Aslett on 02.10.09 at 4:41 am

Thanks for the insight Carlo. A lot of discussion around this focuses on theory, which is why it seems academic. It’s interesting to hear about situations where it is important in practice.

#5 createtank.com on 02.10.09 at 10:38 am

Defining an “open source vendor”…

Wouldn’t any company that offers open source software be an open source vendor?  I think these guy are nitpicking…
Posted via email from …

#6 Perry McDowell on 02.11.09 at 1:33 pm

In my mind the most important issue of defining an “open source vendor” by percent of revenue is not that useful. There are car dealerships that sell cars from multiple companies; is a dealership not a Honda dealership because they also sell Chevy’s?

As open source increases its presence and market share, there will be companies who use both proprietary and open source software. In my mind a more important discussion regarding “open source vendors” is ensuring that the companies are truly selling an open product when the customers thinks they are getting an open source solution. Too many companies try to hook in their proprietary software when the customers think that they are getting a true OS solution; often the customers don’t realize they are hooked into a proprietary product this until they want changes to the product.

#7 451 CAOS Theory » What the OSD doesn’t say about open source on 05.13.09 at 5:50 am

[…] have covered this ground before, but a debate ensued on Twitter that outgrew 140 characters. Hence this quick […]

#8 451 CAOS Theory » Approving and disapproving open source business strategies. Yes or no? on 10.09.09 at 5:00 am

[…] an attempt to create a definition of “open source vendor”. We have discussed this issue before, and I have expressed our willingness to help out if we […]