Still, when we consider the various people and sides arguing for and against pure open source, open core or something in between, I wonder if there is one key group being left out of all this discussion going on amongst vendors, open source companies, open core companies, open source projects, open source developers, open source investors, open source analysts and others: customers.
It’s been my experience that customers typically want the features and insurance (SLAs, indemnity, certification) of open core, provided it remains flexible and the code and option to self-support always exist with a usable, updated, free, open source community version. As we saw when we surveyed open source users and customers, while cost continues to be a big driver, flexibility is among the most cited reasons for and advantages from open source software. While ‘flexibility’ can be admittedly nebulous, what we hear from customers is that they want the freedom and free availability of open source software, but they also want and need the option of paid, commercial support, features and functionality.
Whether a vendor is pure open source or mostly proprietary open core, the advantages of open source software — reduced vendor lock-in, future-proofing and the freedom to continue working with the code, to work with other community members on the code and its direction, the option of self-supporting or otherwise continuing with the code, but not the vendor — all of these things come only with truly open source software and open source communities. I believe the community around the software and its well-being is the true differentiator when it comes to success with commercial open source, whether pure open source or proprietary-heavy open core. If the free, community version is truly crippleware or even if it is not updated and vibrant, then the vendor is less likely to reap or offer those advantages of open source. If the community version is comparable except for higher-level features, functionality and scale, and if that community is supported by the vendor and the community version is updated in parallel with the paid versions (which we typically see in successful open core models), then the vendor is more likely to reap and offer those advantages. The bottom line: flexibility and freedom for the user/customer are not tied to the vendor’s license or business model, be it pure open source, open core or other, but instead are connected to the state and health of the open source software community that is the basis for that vendor’s offering.
I’ve heard similar arguments and demands for flexibility — the option for free community versions that provide decent functionality and features along with the option for more advanced features and subscriptions in paid versions — from vendors that partner with open source software-based companies. Often, there is a reticence and inability, sometimes by policy or procedural rules, to effectively work with an open source software project or community, but once a vendor that supports that software and community commercially emerges, the opportunities for partnership become much more practical and doable. That does not mean the commercial backer has to take an open core route, but I believe the demand for things typically associated with traditional, proprietary software, such as SLAs, indemnity and certifications, are part of what drives demand for open core among open source customers.
This further reinforces the idea that the market and the customers will determine the success or failure of an open source-centered or focused vendor, regardless of how pure open source or proprietary open core they are. Whichever side or wherever in the arguments you find yourself, I believe we should consider IT end users and customers more in this discussion, since they’re always right, right?