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Acts of desperation

Sometimes companies get involved in open source for purely competitive reasons, which are less benign. As Simon Wardley points out, open source "can be used to remove barriers to entry into an opponent's business, to encourage standardisation around your practice creating a cost of transition for opponents, and can be used to develop ecosystems to strengthen your position as part of a land grab for new sources of value or even as a source of recruitment of talent," and any of these reasons could be given as a plausible explanation for Citrix's decision to give its code away.

Sometimes open source can give a new lease of life to existing products. When Sun announced its intention to release Java under the GPL, Marc Fleury claimed that releasing Java under a free software licence would extend the useful life of Java by fifteen years.

Sometimes releasing a product under an open source licence can be seen as an act of desperation in the hope that a community will leap to the rescue of a dying project – as was the case with Netscape, and possibly Symbian (which was open source until Nokia changed its mind and sold it on to Accenture) – or to undermine rivals – as might have been the case with Sun had no commercial imperative to own a proprietary office suite. Giving the code away had the benefit of putting a thorn in the side of Microsoft, as well as handing over some of the responsibilities and costs to the community. As it happens, Sun had purchased StarOffice because "it was cheaper to go buy a company that could make a Solaris and Linux desktop productivity suite than it was to buy forty-two thousand licences from Microsoft."

But had its own problems. The project tended to be over controlled. Copyright assignment and dual licensing worked against the interests of the community, and is still blighting its considerable legacy.

Phipps later made the observation, in another context, that in the light of his experience "attempting to retain control of a project you're starting or hosting leads to mistrust, contention and a rules-based focus that diminishes your reputation. Relaxing control will lead to the community innovating and growing in ways you've not anticipated, as well as enhancing your reputation. As I've frequently said (although less frequently been heeded): trade control for influence, because in a meshed society control gets marginalised while influence delivers success."

Disowning the code

Giving the code and the process away, without a catch, is a less common option for a maturing commercial project. The motives of Citrix may or may not be altruistic, but going fully open source may give CloudStack access to a wider market, and relinquishing the process may turn a reasonably successful project into a very successful project.

Owning the 'IP', the code or the process, which usually happens for the sake of the balance sheet or because of lack of faith in the business model, is not a prerequisite for the commercial success of an open source project. The company that has symbolised the success of free and open source software in commercial environments is Red Hat. Red Hat employs key developers in most of the better known open source projects yet owns little or nothing of the software it sells, and has released most of the software it has gained through acquisition (sometimes at a considerable price) to the community.

Red Hat walks a well-trodden and distinctive line between corporate ambition and community ethics, and depends for its success on the quality of the contributions of developers and the quality of the services it provides, generating its revenue by selling software subscriptions, installation, training, support, upgrades and maintenance. The price Red Hat has to pay to the developers who write and test the software is to stay honest and true to the principles of the communities from which it sprang.

Citrix will hope to have a similar relationship with the Apache developers. Donating the code of CloudStack to Apache is not a guarantee of commercial success, but opens a new set of possibilities. Apache has a ready-made foundation with a proven governance model, a ready-made community of developers and a reputation for technical excellence, and CloudStack gains by association and technical compatibility with other Apache projects.

By donating the code to an existing foundation with a known and solid ethos, Citrix solves the problems of code ownership and by-passes the time-consuming and costly process of creating a foundation of its own. Not owning the code frees developers who can influence the path the software takes, and take snapshots and refine the code for release, rather than trying to exercise control over the developer process.

As it is, Citrix may have won a small but significant victory in its rivalry with OpenStack, which has everything else in its favour but has suffered stirrings against its own governance model and is working to create an independent software foundation of its own.

Paradoxically, distancing CloudStack from its corporate origins may turn out to have been beneficial to the corporate interests of Citrix. And what is true of CloudStack may be true of other commercial projects. Giving the code away may be good for both the software and the business.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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