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01 September 2010, 11:20

Comment: The hype is over

by Oliver Diedrich

The "best open source software for business" list contains almost exclusively well-known contributors. Is there no more new open source?

InfoWorld has performed its annual ritual and presented the Best Open Source Software Awards, the Bossies, selecting the "best open source software for business" in four categories – applications, developer tools, platforms and middleware, and networking tools. And I look at the list in wonder.

Take the business applications: Awards went to the OpenBravo ERP suite, the SugarCRM CRM solution, the Pentaho BI software, the Alfresco and LogicalDoc document management systems, the Drupal, WordPress and Tiki Wiki content management systems, and the Solr search engine.

What is striking is that they are all well-known contenders. Five of the nine award-winning applications – OpenBravo, SugarCRM, Pentaho, Drupal and WordPress – were already given an award in 2009, and a sixth – Alfresco – already received the InfoWorld award in 2008. Tiki Wiki will soon celebrate its tenth anniversary, while LogicalDoc succeeds the far-from-fresh Contineo document management system. And the Lucene-based Solr, which has been an Apache project since 2006, is actually more of a developer tool.

What's also striking is that the majority of applications fall under the label "commercial open source" – open source software created and maintained by a software vendor (exceptions such as Apache Solr prove the rule). That's not surprising in the "open source software for business" categories: Five or six years ago, the commercial open source approach seemed to be what would lead free software out of the infrastructure and developer niches; to combine the advantages of free software – fewer dependencies, lower costs and entry requirements, customisable code – with such requirements as vendor support, SLAs, guarantees and certifications, which are essential for "business-critical" applications. (As if emails didn't matter...)

However, it didn't quite work out that way: Commercial open source software, it turns out, is just the same as any other commercial software; the only difference is that one gets to take a peek at the source code (and often only certain portions of the code, see The H Open feature "Open core, closed heart?") and can download a free trial version with varying degrees of functional restrictions from the internet.

But what about vendor independence? There is only one company that can offer vendor support for SugarCRM. Lower costs? Commercial open source vendors need to cover their development costs just like every other software vendor. Low entry requirements? Not least because of the competition from the open source community, more and more proprietary applications now also offer free trial or community versions. And don't you dare mess with the code if you wish to have vendor support.

The "commercial open source" model, it seems to me, has outlived itself. Sure enough, vendors such as Alfresco or SugarCRM have established themselves in the market – because their products stand up to those of their proprietary competitors. Not because their software is open source, however – this "only" gave them an added edge compared to other start-ups. However, this effect is now gone, and companies who develop open source software are no longer considered extraordinary.

What's left is the fundamental problem inherent in commercial open source software: How can you earn money with software that can be shared freely by everyone? The open core principle, which has now fallen into disrepute but is still applied by many vendors of free enterprise solutions, is not the answer – it does require special dialectic skills to first present the existence of a (stripped-down) open source version as an advantage over the proprietary competition and then sell the (more powerful) commercial version. The hype around commercial open source software, it seems to me, is over.

Which doesn't mean that this is the end for open source software. Utilising its advantages in a corporate environment doesn't require a vendor. As much as the commercial open source vendors may be in the focus of everyone's attention and take up reporting space The H, in the end, they only provide a fraction of the open source software that is used in corporate environments.

Oliver Diedrich is Editor-in-chief at heise Open, The H Open's associates in Germany.


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