The third post in this short series looks at the need to understand the business model surrounding the OSS offering being considered.
One of the defining qualities of OSS is that, at least at a basic level, the produt can be licensed at no charge. This immediately raises the question of how sustainable the model surrounding theOSS project is. The fundamental question is, who is going to keep the code base up to date? Who will apply fixes, develop new function, offer support, provide documentation, etc?
There are a number of different types of OSS project, and each has different business model implications that affect its likely success and future longevity. At its heart, the OSS movement really got under way based on an ‘anti-commercial’ theme, where programmers wanted to share their skills and use software that was developed ny them, for them. This is fine as far as it goes, but as people’s interests change, the exposure is that these developers will move on to something new and the original OSS project will wither away. In the rare situations where th problem is overcome, there is usually a viral element to the project’s success, like in the case of Firefox for example.
The next model is where a commercial company is set up around the OSS project. Usually, these companies sell services around the OSS project such as documentation and training, as well as offering commercial licenses to cover support, or verified and tested versions of the OSS code base. The success of this approach will depend on whether the OSS users are prepared to cross the ‘free software’ line and accept that there will still be costs incurred. A big problem here, however, is how extensive the support offered is. The worst threat is that OSS projects often use other OSS offerings to fill out capabilities, and therefore either the commercial support organization has to become expert in all these code bases, or there will be gaps in the support.
The most devious OSS model is where a vendor sponsors an OSS project for its own advantages, regardless of the implications on the user. Typically, a vendor might take a base level of code and make it an OSS project ‘for the good of the community’, but instead of this project attracting other development partners it remains drive by the single vendor. Now, that vendor typically produces an ‘authentic’ version of the project which DOES have a license cost and maintenance fee. The idea is to get users on board thinking the product is free, and then hook them with the professional versions.
Finally, the best OSS model of all from a user point of view is where a number of large vendors decide it is in their interests to back a particular OSS project. This is the case with LINUX, for example, where vendors such as IBM have put in millions of dollars of investment. As a result, a whole ecosystem of LINUX-oriented companies have sprung up, and all of this ensures that LINUX users can have a degree of confidence in its future.