If you tolerate this… the commercial open source window of opportunity

One of the ‘things I wrote down during OSBC’ was this statement from Benchmark EIR, Rob Bearden:

“Misalignment between a business model and the community’s tolerance point will never be accepted. This will manifest itself in multiple distributions.”

At first glance the statement may seem obvious to anyone who has studied open source-related business strategies or communities, but I believe provides the context for further understanding the complexities of balancing the needs of a business for control and the needs of a community for openness.

As the following graphic demonstrates, the statement suggests that there is a window of opportunity within which the control point of the vendor, and the tolerance point of the community must be closely aligned:

Any relationship between the company’s business model and the community’s tolerance level that falls outside that window is going to result in problems.

Most obviously, if the business seeks to exert more control than the community will tolerate – as Rob describes – that will result in a relationship that falls in the red zone, in which the business strategy is too closed, from the perspective of the community.

You only have to look at what has happened with Hudson/Jenkins and OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice to see that situation playing itself out.

It also indicates that if the business exerts less control than the community will tolerate, that will result in a relationship that falls into the green zone, in which the business strategy isn’t closed enough, from the perspective of the company.

It could be argued that the failure of many companies to generate the conversion of community users to paying customers is the result of a failure to match a paying product/service to the community’s tolerance point.

The graphics below also demonstrate the schisms that can occur if

a) a company suddenly exerts more control that the community is willing to tolerate

or b) the community’s tolerance level suddenly diminishes.

As we have seen with regard to MySQL, the latter can occur when a change of ownership highlights the potential implications of control points that might previously have been tolerated.

Finally, the statement also implies something else that is very interesting in the context of some research I have been doing recently on companies disengaging from open source: that if the community is tolerant enough, then harmony can also be achieved where the vendor is exerting high levels of control.

However, I believe that it is likely that there are also thresholds, a level of vendor control that a developer community will never tolerate (a user community might be different) and a level of community intolerance that a vendor will never engage with.

My contention is, therefore, is that in practice the window of opportunity would look more like this:

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#1 Jack Repenning on 05.25.11 at 11:56 am

Good analysis and graphics. But there are more axes than these. For example, a company that’s contributing significantly to the community usually gets more tolerance from the community, while an “absentee commercializer” often gets very little tolerance at all. With sponsors just as with participants, “contribution” can take many forms: code of course, but also test gear, discussion moderation, or beer at cons.

Maybe, now that we’ve got this “Aslett Curve” as a map, we can start to explore navigation over the terrain.

#2 Robert Hodges on 05.25.11 at 2:16 pm

For the analysis to be useful it would help to define terms like “control” more concretely. This may change your model a bit.

For example, my company, Continuent, has an open source replicator (Tungsten) hosted on Google. It’s completely open source under GPL V2. We therefore _do not_ worry at all about controlling what people do with our software.

We _do_ control (i.e. own) the copyrights to all code on the project and don’t accept contributions without an agreement attributing copyright ownership to us. In this case “control” means “control intellectual property rights,” which is a big deal to investors in commercial companies.

Finally we _do_ worry about controlling quality and timing of features, because that affects the success of the product, hence our business. However, this type of control is not all that different from the closed committer model used by projects like PostgreSQL. I don’t really see an open source vs. commercial dichotomy here.

#3 Hen on 05.26.11 at 2:44 am

Two things felt odd in Rob’s presentation; and are reflected in your chart above.

The first is an implicit notion that the community is a constant, a noun/entity that sits on one side of the negotiation table. Instead it’s about size of community; be more open and it is larger, more closed and it shrinks.

The second is that there is a hidden assumption that the value in the project for its community and for the controlling entity are at loggerheads. I think a lot of that is driven from the VC needs (and why “open source company” is largely a synonym for startup with an open source product).

This comes into play because your window of opportunity defines an area of optimal value to both sides. A compromise between two opposing factions. This is very sad and part of why the noisy ‘open source companies’ often fail to live up to their own hype – they view the community as a competitor and not a partner.

#4 Matthew Aslett on 05.26.11 at 4:26 am

Thanks Jack, Robert and Hen for your comments,

First I agree there are a lot more variables involved in reality. The above is just back-of-a-napkin style analysis. I may well explore it further in our next CAOS report, although as Jack suggests the number of dimensions it could be expanded to address is so great that it might prove impractical.

I think there are a couple of major factors – license, ability to fork, copyright ownership, and as Robert suggests a community’s tolerance for each of those factors will vary (as an aside, Robert the choice of GPLv2 is in itself a control point since it ensures no one else can make the software proprietary).

Hen makes a good point that the tolerance is likely to change over time as well, so that would be factored in (as an aside, Hen I think the ‘competitor rather than partner’ perspective is not accurate, it is more a matter of balancing multiple needs).


#5 links for 2011-05-26 « Wild Webmink on 05.26.11 at 9:00 am

[…] If you tolerate this… the commercial open source window of opportunity Interesting thinking about the opportunity for businesses to profit from open source involvement. Matthew hypothesises there is a natural space where acting correctly leads to profit. Unusual to see him dabbling with "invisible hand" thinking but welcome all the same. (tags: opensource) […]

#6 Cutting into open source business models with a sharp knife and a squeeze | OpenLife.cc on 05.27.11 at 2:51 am

[…] Matt Aslett yesterday returned to the theme of "Control and community" – the title of the 451 Group report on open source business models last year. It's a great and insightful report which I recommend you to read. […]

#7 Hook’s Humble Homepage :: Free Software & law related links 23. V. 2011 - 29. V. 2011 on 09.26.12 at 3:43 pm

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