Open core, closed heart?
Open core is the emerging model in the market's continuing struggle to monetise open source, but will it succeed?
by Richard Hillesley
When is an open source license not an open source license? The recent rush to "Open Core Licensing" as defined by Andrew Lampitt, the business development director of JasperSoft, raises many questions as to the meaning and purpose of free and open source software.
The terms "open source" and "free software" are often confused by companies who want to gain the benefits of a wider developer community. More often than not this has arisen from a misunderstanding of the full implications of "open source" and "free software", and how free software licensing works to the advantage of developers and the companies that are formed to market the software.
The proprietary hybrid that is "Open Core" is an attempt to benefit from the assets of "open source" and "free software", but muddies the waters for both in the wider world, as is illustrated by Matt Asay's claim that "Free software is dead. Long live open source".
We make free software affordable
Open source advocates tend to favour a more liberal approach to software licensing; one based on the premise that "open source" methodologies produced better software, rather than the notion that software should be "free" - whereas free software advocates tend to see "better software" as an incidental, if desirable, side benefit of free software.
The difference is small, but important. In more recent times the term "open source" has often been co-opted and widened by other interests, and it is sometimes forgotten that the primary purpose of "open source" is to promote the idea that the source code should be accessible to all. "For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative" but for the open source movement, free software has usually been the means to a more open and transparent development model.
Central to the success of "open source" software has been the GPL, an avowedly free software license, which provided the nucleus for a community to form around, secure in the knowledge that contributions were fed back into the original body of code. The so-called viral nature of copyleft and the GPL was the instrument that fostered participation and feedback from the community, and provided the framework for the later commercial success of free and open source software, because it worked to the advantage of the corporate interests that later became central to the push of GNU/Linux into the enterprise.
While the GPL and its variants are the preferred license for free software, the Free Software Foundation also recognises a variety of other licenses (BSD, Apache, MIT etc) which are compatible with the GPL. In contrast, the Open Source Initiative (OSI) has loosened its definition to approve a wide range of "open source" licenses, each of which has its own catches, many of which are not truly compatible with the GPL, and some of which are "owned" by the same companies that fractured Unix.
The more the definition of "open source" is loosened, the less effective it will be in spreading the ideals it wishes to promote. Open source is more than just a means by which software companies can maximise their profits.
The gift of code
The choice of license by an open source company can define the personality of the project, and may be the difference between its success and failure. Free and open source software brings many advantages to ISVs: access to a large pool of existing software, economies of scale, reduced costs, collaborative potential, and the independent input of users and developers.
In return for the gift of code, the company fosters its user and developer communities who may have no special allegiance to any company or commercial enterprise but who, nevertheless, make the whole enterprise possible. The choice of license is important to the community and provides a mechanism for participation and feedback. The primary role of an open source software company is not the sale of the software, but marketing and services - subscription, consultancy, installation, training, support, upgrades and maintenance.
JBoss, now a subsidiary of Red Hat, is a primary example of the potential of this model. JBoss software is developed under 'free software' licenses and is freely downloadable. JBoss employs the lead developers for the projects it fosters and makes its money from expertise and support services. This model has worked well for the Linux companies and for JBoss, but may not work as well for software that sits further up the stack, or so the argument goes.