I can still very clearly recall the first time I consciously came into contact with Open Source. We operated a few Linux servers in my company at the time and whenever a tricky configuration had to be implemented or some critical issue had to be resolved, we called for the expert from an Open Source infrastructure service provider: Unkempt hair, knit sweater, Chaos Computer Club T-shirt.
He condemned everything from Microsoft and was quick with a snide comment whenever he came across a proprietary product. He didn't care about money or punctuality, and he especially didn't care about business-driven customer needs. I perceived Open Source to be a kind of religion. For me, coming from a business perspective, this was equally fascinating and incomprehensible.
The world was simple:
Open Source = good
Proprietary and commercial = bad
Today, ten years on, much has changed in this regard. Open Source has become established, in many areas it is actually leading. Luckily, the war-of-faith, which was partially conducted with extreme acrimony, has more or less run out of steam. Publishing software with an Open Source license has become the method of choice if one wants to rapidly gain a decent share of the market. Often, the number of downloads is deliberately confused with the number of installations and the number of registered users is equated with the size of the community. This sort of currency is then used in marketing to make products seem larger than they are.
At first glance, not much is left of the noble goal to create a software world that is not profit-oriented but rather to be used for the common good. Whereas society (and the economy) have made a slow but steady transition to more placidity, less commercialism (for those who can afford it), more sustainability and a more socially conscious lifestyle, Open Source has developed an extremely “chilled” attitude toward money and business. This is not really surprising, as one could earn really good money with Open Source during the past few years. Any many of the Open Source protagonists have, shall we say, matured.
It's easy to lead an idealistic lifestyle without kids, without mortgage and without obligations. But, beginning around the mid-30s the time available seems to become scarcer – just around the time when the focus in life tends to change a little bit. Are the former ideals thus betrayed? No, at least not in my opinion – as part of life and personal development is the ability to change opinions and attitudes and adjust them to changing circumstances. After all, one doesn't have to throw everything over board at once.
Today's Open Source software scene is characterized by powerful companies that offer an Enterprise version, which costs money, in addition to free-of-charge software with an Open Source license. Some companies view Open Source merely as a means to the end of being able to sell the Enterprise version. For instance, I recall a sales person who was trying to sell me an Open Source product a few months ago and who brashly announced that “You can't use the Community Edition for your project anyway. That's not a product, it's just code.”* “What constitutes code?”, I asked. His response was support, the SLA and the account management offered by his company. In other words, all the things an Open Source agency takes care of itself. And things the agency continues to naturally try and hold on to, as these items are crucial to the user experience of agency clients. In this case the situation doesn't really add up for anyone. It's a fact that only a small number of companies have achieved profitability through an Enterprise business model. In my opinion, those businesses that follow this path will fail in the long-term. It is much more important to enliven the ecosystem with one's own product and animate the members of the community to collaborate. And, at the same, to generate revenue streams that are fair for everyone and are affordable. Not really easy, is it?
Slowly but surely, even the large proprietary software vendors have begun to integrate Open Source components into their business. Microsoft has undertaken enormous efforts and even includes the following in its marketing collateral:
It's a rather late realization but a logical one in the business world that slowly recognizes that working together is probably more profitable than working at cross purposes. And this change-in-attitude leaves us to hope that this will create a more open software industry, for this can only be in the best interest of the customer – and thus also in the best interest of the service provider.
It is therefore obvious that it would be a big advantage for many vendors to publish their software under an Open Source license. I'm thinking about CMS manufacturers such as Sitecore, Adobe (EM), etc., for example. That they don't do this, is due to two things. For one thing, there is a certain lack of strategic insight from time to time. For another, the transformation to an Open Source business is extremely costly and fraught with risk. In addition, there is a lack of qualified professionals with true Open Source business expertise. That the big companies, who in general have an even more difficult time in making this transition, are still investing large sums is a good sign. The effect thus generated will benefit all of us, end users as well as the software industry as a whole, in the future.
(*No, it was no one from Magento!)