The open core issue (part one)

The debate about the open core licensing strategy continued last week while I was enjoying a week off.

However, like Carlo Daffara, I was unable to keep my mind completely off the topic and as I dug the allotment one afternoon I found myself pondering why it is that the topic continues to be such a controversial issue.

On the face of it the answer is obvious – open core involves the mixing of open source and proprietary licensing strategies as vendors offer an open source core, as well as a closed version with additional extensions, and opponents are concerned that the “open source brand” is tarnished by companies like SugarCRM claiming to be “an open source company”.

I believe the answer is deeper than that, however. The open core strategy highlights many of the major issues that divide attitudes when it comes to software licensing and development. Alongside “open vs closed” it also triggers discussions around “control vs community”, “customers vs users”, “pragmatism vs idealism”, “freedom vs lock-in”, “venture capital vs self-funding” and “product vs service”, among other things.

I intend to address many of those issues in the second part of this post, and the issue of “open source companies” below, but first I wanted to turn attention to what, for me, is the underlying division highlighted by open core: whether free and open source software (and its associated software freedoms) is considered a means to an end, or an end in itself.

During the ongoing debate before my week off Henrik Ingo stated “open core goes against the values of the open source community”.

I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. Or, to put it another way: I think it is undoubtedly true if you consider FOSS to be an end in itself but not if you consider FOSS to be a means to an end – for example, if you are establishing or maintaining a VC-backed/public software company, in which case the end is likely to be maximizing profit through lowering software development costs in the case of an open complement strategy (see Motorola, below) or barriers to adoption, in the case of the open core strategy.

Neither position is truly representative of the values of the open source community. But the difference between the two is at the heart of the debate about open core and, more broadly, the use of open source software in the creation of closed products.

A great example of this tension was provided by Bradley M Kuhn this morning as he criticised Motorola’s “opposition to software freedom” based on its decision not to deliver unlocked Android phones for system development and re-flashing, a decision that it is perfectly entitled to take while remaining in compliance with the relevant licenses.

The difference between Motorola and many vendors with open core strategies, of course, is that Motorola doesn’t claim to be an “open source company”, which brings us back to the issue of the “open source brand”.

If you believe open source to be an end in itself then that open source brand is something to be protected, whereas if you believe open source is a means to an end then there is no open source brand to protect – just a description of a set of licenses that meet certain conditions.

That description, the Open Source Definition, is the closest thing we have to an articulation of the values of the open source community but – as I have previously noted – it is a functional document that is concerned only with licenses, not the business strategies associated with how they are used. It is certainly not a definition of an open source company.

As a result people on both sides are able to apply their own values to their interpretation of the OSD in the context of open source-related business strategies. Henrik Ingo is therefore justified when he writes “open core does not qualify as open source, as per the definition. It is closed source. It is the opposite of open source” as is Mark Radcliffe when he writes “the open core model does not violate the Open Source Definition, either literally or in spirit.”

It could be argued that Mark’s opinion carries a little more weight than others when it comes to the Open Source Definition, although it should be noted that he was providing his own personal opinion, rather than that of the General Counsel of the Open Source Initiative.

This is why I described the debate around open core as tedious and futile, because unless personal interpretation is removed from the equation there is no hope of resolution. (Incidentally, anyone who thinks there is an agreed definition of “open source” should probably avoid the comments on this Slashdot post discussing SugarCRM). In short, if you want to police the term “open source company” then you have to have a definition for it first.

An “open source company definition” was adopted by the OSI as a standard definition for an open source company In August 2009, although the definition itself has never been published, while in October last year Simon Phipps proposed building a Scorecard for Open Source that wold also have taken the conversation forward, but nothing much has been heard of that since.

That is why I welcomed Henrik Ingo’s list of the business practices he believes are unacceptable, because it at least it attempts to progress the conversation. At this stage, of course, Henrik’s list is still Henrik’s list, and a matter of personal opinion. The hard part will be reaching some sort of consensus on acceptability. Then there is the matter of how it could be enforced, and by whom.

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18 comments ↓

#1 Simon Phipps on 07.15.10 at 7:20 pm

The scorecard idea is still on my list, but I’ve decided to focus on the OSI revamp first ( which could well embrace the idea).

#2 Juergen Geck on 07.16.10 at 1:29 am

I always liked open source – and especially the GPLv2 – because it protects what many don’t want to live with: the freedom to use code others wrote. And it goes both ways, for the good and for the bad. It grants rights to the people you agree with … and for all the others:)
I am too much of a cvynic to even consider a “resolution” possible. We are humans. We are not objective by design.
And I must say I am a bit scared by institutions that will undoubtedly also institutionalize open source. Committees are the opposite of a functional open source community.
Open source has overcome many of the hurdles that parts of the community are eager to errect again.
Fortunately some of the groundrules might protect us even from that.

Great article, Matt. I think the answer to your question is clear: there is parts of “the community” in either camp. There are cathedrals and bazaars in open source. It is just a matter of taste and attitude where anyone ends up. And as long as we live and let live – instead of judge and blame – everything is fine 🙂

#3 Henrik Ingo on 07.16.10 at 7:19 am

Wow, for a discussion that is futile, you certainly spend a lot of energy on it! But you dig up some interesting findings…

I sure hope Slashdot will not become the authoritative reference for what is open source 🙂 …but the link to Caldera’s 1996 use of the term “open source code” is interesting historical fact. I personally don’t see this conflicting with OSI or OSD, rather I see it as early evolution of the term open source. (analogous to how the 1995 MySQL public license wasn’t open source but wanted to be.)

I think Carlo’s post is an excellent example that people can agree on something even if having different preferences. Good luck with the “Zimbra – the leader in open source and proprietary email” tagline, but yeah, that is exactly what this is about. For instance, observe how Augustin of SugarCRM is fighting against being categorized as open core – this is like a replay of Mårten’s arguments some years ago wrt MySQL.

Finally, your digging up of the old OSI minutes are interesting. Simon, apparently there is already an approved “open source company definition”? Where is it? Was it discussed by the community in public?

As to the point of this article itself, I again agree, but from my perspective it is still not a “who’s to say what’s right or wrong” issue. I’ll try to explain:

Like you say, some of us look at the issue as an exercise of lowering R&D costs – essentially this is a variation of maximizing profit. In our capitalist economy this is considered a positive thing (though we do legislate all kinds of regulation to balance the free market). I’ve studied some business in university. I understand that a CEO or manager has a duty to just generate profits and nothing else. I understand how such people think and act – I could be such a person.

Otoh, some of us see open source (or rather, empowering users and developers through software freedom) as an end, or at least a means to a more powerful kind of prosperity that transcends the profit maximization of any single company. For me, to innovate new (and true) open source business models is a means to an end: coming up with such will give us more open source and bring us closer to such prosperity.

And this *is* what the open source community is about. Now, I have no issue with the fact that most companies will see profits as the end and anything else as means. I understand that thinking. What is problematic is that the other side – Mark Radcliffe, in your example – doesn’t seem to understand the open source community they want to play in, or even acknowledge that such a community exists (other than as a group of people happening to use a specific “means” to their end). I fully allow them the right to maximie their profits, but I don’t allow them to come in and redefine open source to mean closed source. (Yes, this misusing of the open source brand *is* against the spirit of the OSI and OSD, and there’s plenty of historical precedent of OSI taking action against similar misuse. SugarCRM for one isn’t even here the first time!)

In other industries we have plenty of examples of businesses with a strong ethical commitment first. The Body Shop comes to mind as a great example. Also, ethics as a topic shouldn’t be (but often is) foreign to any business manager, since you always have issues like why shouldn’t I use child labor, gene manipulation, non-renewable energy, etc… none of these are illegal. For that matter, who says you have to remain legal? Why not just maximize profits and factor in fines and jail time as a risk or an expense?

So yes, I feel fully entitled to criticize those businesspeople who fail to understand values of the open source community and then proceeding to try to redefine them on our behalf.

#4 Matthew Aslett on 07.16.10 at 7:50 am

“for a discussion that is futile, you certainly spend a lot of energy on it!”

That is sadly tue. My intention is to steer the conversation beyond the level of he said/she said, open source good/open core bad, because I think there is something fundamentally important here but the level of discussion needs to be elevated. I appreciate your attempts to do the same

#5 Henrik Ingo on 07.16.10 at 1:52 pm

Thank you, and I think you are doing it quite well. For what it’s worth, I do try to help people understand the issue too, despite the fact that I also take a side.

#6 Henrik Ingo on 07.16.10 at 7:38 am

Btw, if you want to more deeply understand the thinking of someone interested in open source business models as the end itself, you should read up on the “germ form theory” by the German Oekonux project. This is the best scientific-like framework I’ve seen so far to explain the dynamic I and others see us in: http://openlife.cc/blogs/2008/february/re-publicgr-publishes-ethics-freedom-and-trust-my-contribution-weird-academic-de

Also this opensource.com post is relevant in explaining the motivations on a less scientific level: http://opensource.com/business/10/5/show-me-money

It is somewhat ironic that the latter article was also tweeted with positive commentary by open core proponents. This reinforces my belief that many of them just don’t “get it” wrt to open source, rather than being somehow dishonest in their greed. Of course they may be influenced by their financial motivations to not understand the issue even if they should be capable of it.

#7 Henrik Ingo on 07.16.10 at 1:57 pm

After second reading just one more thing, just because I want to help you in your quest of advancing the discussion.

I think the dichotomy you paint here with (let’s call them) “Henrik’s side” and “Mark’s side” (to avoid any other labels) is correct, however I don’t think “lowering R&D cost” is the main motivator for open core. (Since open core companies typically starve any external community, their R&D cost is the same as for a proprietary company.)

#8 Henrik Ingo on 07.16.10 at 2:02 pm

Eh, this is a continuation of previous comment that was accidentally submitted…

…In my observation the main value of the open core strategy is precisely to (mis)use the open source brand and community good will, free evangelization, etc… to then monetize it with proprietary products. If it was just about R&D costs, the companies could let ASF or someone run the “open” part, and just focus on the proprietary part themselves. Some do it this way (today we see CollabNet/Subversion commenting on this), but the leading examples are those that mix closed source into the same brand. And it is this misuse of open source that is objectionable. (It’s not just about the customer, at MySQL many developers were proud to join a leading open source company, only to then find themselves producing closed source software. This caused a lot of grief and badwill.)

The reaction from Augustin of SugarCRM is telling, he goes to great lengths to defend his claim that their enterprise is open source too, even if admitting it is not an OSI license. If it was about R&D cost, this would not be an issue.

#9 Henrik Ingo on 07.16.10 at 3:10 pm

Sorry for writing in pieces 🙂

So unless it was crystal clear, the above still falls within the general umbrella of maximizing company profit, the magic just isn’t so much in lower R&D cost as it is in free riding on the open source brand and goodwill. (Lower marketing cost, perhaps?)

#10 Matthew Aslett on 07.17.10 at 1:41 am

Yes I completely agree. Open core is not about lowering R&D through collaborative development but lowering the barriers to adoption for the paid-for product. When I mentioned R&D costs I was thinking of the open complement approach you describe – I’ll change the post to clarify.

Again, whether this is a “misuse of open source” depends on your of view.

Matt

#11 What others say about open core | OpenLife.cc on 07.17.10 at 5:47 pm

[…] the different opinions, digest and analyse them and possibly come up with sensible conclusions. his latest post extensively draws from my previous post that detailed specific objectionable open core practices […]

#12 On the term “open source business” « Wild Webmink on 07.17.10 at 7:11 pm

[…] on ✈ United’s Retro, courte…Tom Lehmann on ✈ United’s Retro, courte…451 CAOS Theory … on Open Core Case Studykgunders on Open Core Case StudyOleg on ✈ Join Me At Open […]

#13 ✍ On the term “open source business” « Wild Webmink on 07.17.10 at 7:14 pm

[…] on ✈ United’s Retro, courte…Tom Lehmann on ✈ United’s Retro, courte…451 CAOS Theory … on Open Core Case Studykgunders on Open Core Case StudyOleg on ✈ Join Me At Open […]

#14 Neary Consulting » Rotten to the (Open) Core? on 07.19.10 at 10:08 am

[…] core, Open core,  more Open core… the debate goes on and on, with Monty the latest to weigh […]

#15 Jack on 07.19.10 at 10:59 pm

You try very to prove that “Black” is “White”!

You say that the discussion is futile. I say that the discussion is only futile because you moved the frames of the discussion.

The discussion is about “open source” products. It’s not about “open source companies”. There isn’t such a thing. There are not “open source companies” nor it will ever be. Because it doesn’t make any sense.

So the discussion is no longer futile again.

Now you have to prove something that can be assessed. Can you proved that products that those companies sell are “open source”? The answer is NO!

End of discussion.

#16 Matthew Aslett on 07.20.10 at 8:15 am

I didn’t move the frame of the discussion – Henrik and Simon (and others) have been arguing that vendors with an open core strategy should not call themselves open source companies. You seem to have some other agenda. No the products that these companies *sell* are not open source but the community projects that they have created and support are open source. This is not in dispute. What is your point?

#17 Jack (some other "Jack") Repenning on 07.20.10 at 11:48 am

Simon seems to see a link between the two topics as well, having moved this week from “open-core companies shouldn’t claim to be open-source companies,” to “no one should claim to be an open-source company.” I’m not convinced: I grant that the “selling” part and the “open source” part describe different aspects of the company, but I not only think it’s legitimate, but in fact I think there’s real value to all for a company with a good record of supporting open source to say so. We want, I think, to drive the terminology into some sort of form that rewards good corporate citizenship, and shames bad.

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