Approving and disapproving open source business strategies. Yes or no?

Simon Phipps has begun a conversation designed ultimately “to devise some sort of a Software Freedom Definition which articulates a holistic vision of software freedom against which businesses can be benchmarked.”

To put it another way, this is 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 can.

At the same time, if I am honest, I am in two minds about whether this is a valuable exercise, and I think it is worth considering why we should want to do this, as well as how. The question, to me, is: should the OSI (or any other body for that matter) be approving open source development and business strategies?

Any attempt to approve certain business practices is, by definition, also going to involve disapproving of certain business practices. I would question whether doing so is counter to one of the reasons for the creation of the open source movement – specifically, as Eric Raymond explained there was: “a pragmatic interest in converting these people [corporate types] rather than thumbing our noses at them”. To put it another way, the plan to approve certain business practices is, ‘a bit free software’ for my liking (and that, I am aware, is precisely the point for some involved in this – returning the conversation to software freedom). I would agree with Jason Perlow, who wrote this week, that the open source movement should “continue as a culture of inclusion and.. not be the arbiter of behavior or demonize those who cannot yet or refuse to join us”.

The open source movement is made up of many differing views and debates about freedom and openness are an important part of a lively ecosystem. At the same time, these debates are confusing for outsiders and do not present a good image of open source, especially when they result in ad hominem attacks and name calling. If these debates are inevitable, then I believe that it is better that they are focused and have a chance of generating in a meaningful result. The conversation that Simon is starting would appear to offer both that focus, and have a chance of producing a meaningful result (although it will not be easy – the phrase ‘can of worms’ springs to mind). Also, from a purely selfish practical perspective, sometimes in the course of our CAOS research we do want to draw a line around which vendors we want to consider “open source vendors” for particular research (such as measuring venture capital investment in open source vendors). I would much rather we were able to use scorecard that had been agreed industry-wide than our own definition.

Clearly, since I have expressed our willingness to help this scorecard process the positive aspects of this exercise outweigh the negative aspects in my mind. However I do think it is important to approach this effort in a spirit of inclusion, rather than exclusion, and to make an effort to explain why the approved business practices are seen as beneficial in terms of both software freedom and commercial interests.

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#1 Simon Phipps on 10.09.09 at 5:41 am

I don’t think approving or rejecting “business strategies” is the way to go either. However, it’s clear that certain things promote software freedom – using an OSI-approved license, for example, or having a patent-peace arrangement for a community. It was a great idea to have an “Open Source License Definition” and grade projects against it. My proposal is to simply extend that approach to other areas of software freedom. I don’t think any project or business is likely to score 10/10 and that’s OK as long as it’s clear from the start.

#2 Matthew Aslett on 10.09.09 at 5:50 am

Absolutely agree, although I fear some other people might use this as a stick to beat particular vendors with. I think if the benefits of software freedom are explained in both “ethical” and business terms then it can act as a carrot, rather than a stick.

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#4 Matt Asay on 10.09.09 at 7:16 am

I’m not sure why we are even talking about talking about this debate. It’s something that a few open-source people care about, and 99.9999999999999999999% of the planet could not possibly care less about Customers don’t care. They really don’t. At all. I used to think they did. Then I started talking to them. I was wrong.

Let’s move on. Customers aren’t stupid. They know what they want. And they can determine if something is open enough for them, and how it’s open and how it’s closed.

#5 Benjamin Reed on 10.09.09 at 7:43 am

You work for an open-core company, so of course the customers you talk to don’t care about it. Many of /our/ customers do, however.

This debate wouldn’t be happening so often if few people cared, so apparently they really do. The people that benefit from blurring the line are going to be happy to have the debate go away, because the line stays blurred. The people that benefit from hilighting the differences between open core and fully open source software are going to want to keep the subject up until more folks are educated on the differences.

To say “let’s stop talking about it” is to tell Coke and Pepsi to stop having advertising, ’cause everyone already knows whether they like one more than the other. That point-of-view forgets that the likely outcome if one of them stopped advertising is that in 20 years they’d be as well known as RC.

Educating the market about the differences is and I expect will always be important.

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#8 Jay Lyman on 10.09.09 at 12:37 pm

I think there is much value in this discussion, even though I think we may also be hearing from opposite ends of the spectrum from ‘let’s have a yardstick for sw freedom and openness among vendors’ to ‘let’s not have the free software vs. open source debate respun as a fight over measuring openness of specific vendors or business models.’

In the end, I believe the market will determine whether vendors and other users of open source software are being true to free and open source software and its licensing and communities in both letter and spirit. What happens when a company comes out with something it calls open source? One of my first questions is what license? For this, we can thank the OSI and a widely-accepted, standard definition of open source. However, to apply a similar definition to particular vendors or business models may serve to limit the business models or vendors that are considered open source or that rely on open source. I believe that open source software developers, and increasingly users both large and small, are well aware of what open source is supposed to be — freedom, flexibility, lower cost, customizable, etc. As we remind open source vendors when we warn against canceling out open source advantages, these groups are usually quite active and vocal, and are capable on their own of determining which players are for real in open source, and which are not.


#9 Carlo Daffara on 10.09.09 at 12:56 pm

The debate is returning, more and more, and I believe that while it is true that it may not be interesting for the majority of OSS users, the fact that it continues to emerge means that the basic foundation of how OSS is delivered remains unclear. My view is that it is important for users to understand their rights, and for companies not to abuse “open” in a way that may be misleading. If a customer wants an open core solution because it makes more sense for him/her, then it’s not a problem; when a customer buy a non-open solution believing it to be within his full control, then there is a problem. I remark the fact that when we performed the FLOSSMETRICS study, we had to remove around 10% of companies claiming to be open source, but under non-OSS licenses, or flatly denying access to the source code. That is a very high percentage, and I believe that lots of customers may fall for this. However, on the other side, I believe that a checklist should be something that the customer uses to evaluate vendors, but not something that may be imposed from the outside.

#10 Everything is a Freaking DNS problem on 10.13.09 at 3:43 pm

Open Source, Open Core, Open ScoreCards…

There is this constant discussion about Open Core vs Open Source vs Proprietary Software , Fauxpen Source, Open Source Business models etc.. you probably know all the usual suspects involved, first up lets agree that nobody will ever agree on what…

#11 John on 02.21.10 at 2:06 am

Open Core vs Open Source vs Proprietary Software , Fauxpen Source, Open Source Business models etc.. are continuous discussions and the best part is that you probably know all the usual suspects involved.