When commercial open source goes bad

One of the primary proof-points of the success of open source has been its adoption by previously proprietary software vendors.

In February 2007 The 451 Group’s CAOS practice released its third report, Going Open, which examined the increasing adoption of open source licensing by traditionally-licensed software companies and captured the industry best-practices to ensure a successful transition from closed to open.

Four years is a long time in the software industry and in a few months we will publish a follow-up to Going Open, updating our analysis of the trends and best-practices and revisiting the vendors profiled in the report to see how they have fared following the transition to open source licensing.

As well as examining open source successes it is also important to consider those examples where open source licensing has not delivered the expected results, and the new report will also examine vendors that have “Gone Closed” and abandoned open source licensing efforts.

There are a few examples we are already aware of through our ongoing research. One analytic database vendor recently changed the license of its Community Edition project, abandoning the GNU GPL in favour of a license that would not meet the Open Source Definition (I won’t name them now since I haven’t given them the opportunity to explain themselves).

Another example involves a company set up by some prominent former employees of one of the big names in open source software. The first version was released using an open source license but was never updated, as the company focused all its attention on the closed source version instead.

Meanwhile one of the prominent “open source” systems management vendors appears to have removed all mention of its Community Edition software from its website, while the Community Edition itself has not been updated for 15 months. While the project is not officially “dead” it is, to say the least, “pining for the fjords” and the company in question could be said to be open source in name only.

We are sure there are plenty of other examples of companies that have launched an open source project or “Community Edition” only to later decide that maintaining the project was not in its best commercial interests. The question is, why did these companies fail to benefit from open source licensing, and what can commercial open source companies lean from their experiences.

If you have any examples of dead or “resting” open source projects, please let us know and we will investigate.

Please note, however, that in this instance we are not interested in companies that have simply gone “open core” or adopted copyright contribution agreements. As fascinating as those subjects are (and may well be contributing factors in the demise of a project) we are interested for this report primarily in the discontinued use of an open source license.

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#1 Anonymous on 03.21.11 at 11:20 pm

Do you have an email address for posting tips anonymously?

#2 Matthew Aslett on 03.22.11 at 4:19 am

Sure: first.last@the451group.com

#3 Stephen Walli on 03.22.11 at 12:52 pm

Some of what you may be seeing is young companies that want to “do open source” but don’t understand what it really means. So they publish source under an OSI-approved license (regardless of whether there’s a community edition or not) but never build an architecture of participation to encourage the formation of a real community, or mistakenly try to hold the source too tightly and chase away a fledgling community. They don’t understand the trade-offs or haven’t the executive conviction to pursue community growth versus short term revenue. No community forms.

Slightly more mature companies (but still with too many VCs on the board) may be running afoul of the urgent need for revenue as they consider/pursue their next round of funding. They get forced to focus on measurable revenue instead of soft data around community.

It’s the sort of things we discussed here: http://bit.ly/8YnoVs

#4 Matthew Aslett on 03.22.11 at 1:10 pm

Thanks Stephen,

Yes I am sure we’ll see a lot of what you describe – and we described in our Control and Community report – as symptoms for the “failure” of specific open source efforts. There are some examples where the people involved definitely understand open source but appear to have turned their backs on it. I think we will see some examples where companies (believe they) can get the same benefits of an open source license with a freemium model (which is not to say the user gets the same benefits) without the hassle of community building. We’ll see.

#5 Stephen Walli on 03.22.11 at 1:14 pm

So are you seeing the companies “turning their backs” or is there exec pressure to get revenue at the expense of community?

#6 Matthew Aslett on 03.22.11 at 1:24 pm

Both, I think. I want to be careful not to make assumptions – we need to investigate more with the individual companies

#7 Anteos on 03.22.11 at 6:54 pm

Dimdim could be an example of an OSS closed project

#8 Michael Rother on 03.23.11 at 5:06 am

How about Nagios?

Nagios Core releases over the last two years have contained bug fixes and some minor incremental improvements contributed by the community. All significant new features are going into Nagios XI, which is released under a commercial license. This has already prompted the creation of several forks of Nagios Core.

I can only conclude that the creation of Nagios XI was necessary in order to develop a sustainable business for Nagios Inc.

#9 Gary on 03.23.11 at 12:49 pm


“I can only conclude that … was necessary … sustainable business …”

Well here is a post that might help with arguments for a different conclusion:
Shortened: http://is.gd/gSIB3u

#10 451 CAOS Theory » The decline of ‘open source’ as an identifying differentiator on 06.27.11 at 6:33 pm

[…] The decline of ‘open source’ as an identifying differentiator Matthew Aslett, June 27, 2011 @ 6:33 pm ET I’ve been examining the trend of open source-related vendors disengaging from open source development and licensing as part of my research for the next CAOS research report. […]

#11 451 CAOS Theory » Going Open, Going Closed: best practices and lessons learned on 07.27.11 at 11:03 am

[…] the 451 CAOS practice examining the impact of open source on business strategies. As previously indicated, it takes a look at a number of vendors that have successfully ‘gone open’, including […]

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