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12 October 2010, 15:00

The H Half-Hour - Larry Augustin

by Dj Walker-Morgan

The first in an occasional series where The H talks to open source's business and community leaders. Larry Augustin, SugarCRM CEO talked to The H's editor in chief in a discussion that ranges from consumer electronics and licensing to user empowerment and relationship management.

Larry Augustin visits London and talked to The H
"We should stop trying to turn developers into lawyers" says Larry Augustin, SugarCRM CEO. The subject came up in a discussion with Augustine at the CRM accelerator event which evangelises the open source SugarCRM software. Augustine was fresh from opening the event and promoting SugarCRM's three foundations – open, intuitive and partners. He'd asked the audience if they would buy a car which could only be fixed by it's dealer and why would people buy software like that when they could get software that they could customise and fix as they needed.

Talking with Augustin and SugarCRM's VP of Products Clint Oram after the speech, The H noted that there was one thing that users couldn't modify, the presence of a "Powered by SugarCRM" attribution, the metaphorical car's hood-ornament, and asked if that harked back to the days when a debate raged about the onorousness of the BSD attribution clause.

Augustin was at the centre of the early open source community at that time. As Glyn Moody, regular columnist at The H, notes, he was present at the meeting where the term "open source" was coined in 1998, a year before Augustin's VA Linux went public and made Augustin a wealthy man.

Back in the early days of open source, the BSD licence required a copyright line to be displayed at applications start-up. This lead to many unix operating systems starting up with a long list of copyrights. Augustine noted that his Panasonic TV possessed a many pages long open source licence option in it's menus which listed the many licences of the software used in the TV, in the same way that the latest update to Sky's HD boxes includes a fifty eight page display of the GPL, LGPL and other licences. In some ways, it's become too complicated for small groups of developers to do open source says Augustin noting that "we keep turning developers into lawyers".

"In retrospect, in terms of attribution, it's a little amusing" said Augustin. "It highlights a problem of combining open source software" which is keeping tabs on all the licences that are involved, not just because of some licences requirements to distribute modified code, but also in terms of managing attributions and other requirements. "A page of copyright attributions doesn't look so onerous now" he noted; if the BSD licence was appearing as a new licence today, it "would be regarded differently".

Other things concern Augustin more though. "Open source is the default choice in consumer electronics and that's fantastic" but he looks further than just the licences and availability of code. "It's not just that someone has the right licences, but the notion that it becomes something where people can truly extend the software" he says, noting that despite there being open source code within consumer electronics devices, its often not easy or even possible for users of those devices to extend or replace the installed software. SugarCRM has evolved its licensing position over time with SugarCRM, from a specialised "Sugar Public Licence" to the GPL and, since April to the Affero GPL3, which requires a "Powered by SugarCRM" line in the visible web user interface.

Although the company's business model mixes a commercial licence and open source licences, Augustin is quick to point out that the company's customers always get the full source code of commercially licensed SugarCRM when they acquire it. He sees "open source" as part of a strategy to give customers more freedom. This includes making sure their data is easily freed from the database and looking to deliver development power to users. He goes into more detail on this in a blog posting from July, but as a more immediate example of this philosophy, Augustin talked about the SugarLogic development currently taking place.

SugarLogic is destined to give users the ability to use spreadsheet-like named database "cells" and macros to customise data and manipulate that data within SugarCRM to create new styles of workflows. Currently being delivered as a library of functions, Oram said users should see the user accessible components arrive over the next two releases of SugarCRM which should in turn allow them to adapt and create new capabilities for SugarCRM. Another element in the strategy that Augustin mentions is to ensure that code is readable; aspiring SugarCRM developers should be faced with clear self explanatory code because as Augustin says "if you haven't written the code to be read then it's hard".

As for SugarCRM itself, Augustin sees great potential in their mobile applications which are currently in beta. Written with the open source cross platform Appcelerator framework, the SugarCRM mobile applications can run on the iOS devices such as the iPhone or iPad or on Android devices. One feature of Appcelerator is that mobile applications can also operate as desktop applications. When asked about that Augustin noted that "The desktop use of Appcelerator has a lot of potential too" suggesting that plans for a richer desktop experience may be in the making for SugarCRM.

The company uses SugarCRM internally to manage its own relationships specifically with its customers, but Augustin sees a wider role for CRM, simply by dropping the C and focussing on Relationship Management. One example he uses is that of local politicians using SugarCRM as a way of managing their work with constituents. "I don't think we've done a good enough job communicating and evangelising Sugar as a platform for relationship management" said Augustin. With open source communities becoming larger, he could see potential for the larger projects to use Sugar as a better way of interacting with their wider communities, rather than sending people to bug trackers or forums, with the result of those communities becoming more open and accessible.

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