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James Dixon’s thoughts on commercial open source and open source business intelligence

The Free Software movement limits its own future

with 17 comments

Bradley M. Kuhn posted recently that “Open Core” Is the New Shareware

In it he trots out all of the usual misconceptions that the free software advocates frequently do about the open core model. But I give him credit for being direct about his Free Software allegiance (not purporting an open source one), and for describing what he imagines to be an ideal Free Software company.

The first move we have to make is simply give up the idea that the best technology companies are created by VC money. This may be true if your goal is to create proprietary companies, but the best Free Software companies are the small ones, 5-10 employees, that do consulting work and license all their improvements back to a shared codebase. From low-level technology like Linux and GCC to higher-level technology like Joomla all show that this project structure yields popular and vibrant codebases.

This identifies something that, to me, is the biggest flaw in the ideology of the Free Software movement – an end game that is unsustainable and unattainable.

As I have written before (in this post Misunderstanding open source #3: applying ‘Free Software’ religion to open source business models). I think it is important to imagine a future where the majority of software is free/open source software (FOSS). If that is something you think is desirable (and there are a lot of people who don’t), I think it is important to also imagine how we get there.

I assume that if Kuhn thinks that 5-10 person companies are the ideal ones to represent free software, then his ‘future’ for free software is a collection of 5-10 person companies stewarding all of the planet’s software. This implies little or no involvement from large software vendors or services companies like IBM, Oracle/Sun, and Microsoft. Not even medium sized or small companies can participate, only microscopic companies. Ask yourself this: in this future, can the software and support needs of most organizations and governments of the world be handled by this group of 5-10 person companies? Clearly not, this is ridiculous. Large organizations and companies require the products and support of much larger software providers. They require things like pre-sales support, RFPs, and service level agreements. They require 24×7 support worldwide. In this version of the future the open source vendors that exist cannot meet the needs of the mainstream markets. As a result the large proprietary software vendors survive happily, because the open source vendors do not provide a viable alternative. This is clearly at odds with the desires of the free software movement. They want to eliminate proprietary software and proprietary software companies, yet their behaviour ensures the survival of those things.

Aha! (you might exclaim) what about the example of Linux that Kuhn provides. Ok, lets examine that. Firstly you cannot use the original creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, as a shining example of the virtue of free software because he frequently is critical of the free software ideology, he is not a free software advocate. Certainly you can point out that Linux is steered by a foundation and not by a corporation. But look at the board of directors of the Linux Foundation. As of today they are Larry Augustin CEO of SugarCRM (an dubious open core company, according to some), James Bottomley (Novell), Alan Clark (Novell), Wim Coekaerts (VP Engineering at Oracle), Masahiro Date (general manager of Fujitsu), Frank Fanzilli, Doug Fisher (VP Intel), Dan Frye (VP IBM), Bdale Garbee (Chief Technologist Hewlett-Packard), Tim Golden (Bank of America), Hisashi Hashimoto (Hitachi), Brian Pawlowski (NetApp), Chris Schlaeger (AMD), Tsugikazu Shibata (NEC), Eric Thomas (Texas Instruments), Christy Wyatt (VP Motorola). The mighty and free Linux is steered by a big software/hardware cartel – Novell (Microsoft’s Linux partner), Oracle, IBM, HP, Hitachi – and a chipset cartel – Intel/AM/TI/Motorola. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, in fact it is a good thing. What I’m saying is that using Linux as a ‘free software’ example is a big stretch.

The open core companies are trying to disrupt entrenched proprietary software markets. The free software movement dislikes proprietary software. They have a common enemy in proprietary software. The open core companies would welcome the free software movement as an ally, however the free software advocates choose open core as an enemy. What they don’t realize is that many potential open source companies are choosing between proprietary and open core – 100% open source is not an option. By inciting community members, as Kuhn does, to fork open core projects, he is creating an anti-open core environment that might persuade new start-ups to go proprietary rather than open core. The open core model is preferable to proprietary, but listening to the opinions of the free software advocates you don’t hear that message at all.

The path from a proprietary world to an open source one is a long one. It started over 20 years ago, and it will take another 20 years to get to the end. Maybe at the end the open core model will be a historical footnote. But along the road the open core model is a useful stepping stone that allows otherwise proprietary software companies to become at least partially open, on the way to full openness.


Written by James

October 19, 2009 at 3:44 pm

17 Responses

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  1. I don’t think the relative size of organisations involved is very important. The problem with open core is that the model is a single vendor exercising control over their users. Free Software is about a community pooling their contributions for the common good. The community can be made up of large organisations, a contribution can be financial. Free software projects do require stewardship and there are many ways this can be provided. The stewards of the project should have an interest in it’s success, but not at the expense of the community.

    Alan Bell

    October 19, 2009 at 5:01 pm

  2. I agree with your points Alan. Except that the vendors are not exercising control over users, more the codebase.

    But what I am getting at is this: What is worse, a single vendor exercising control over an open source codebase, or a single vendor exercising control over a proprietary codebase?

    Surely you would prefer more code in open source rather than less? It is this lack of general perspective that I am talking about.


    October 19, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    • perspective is a good thing and open source code is better than proprietary code. I just think that you are trying to tell vegetarians that people who eat veggies and fish are vegetarians too.

      Alan Bell

      October 19, 2009 at 6:30 pm

      • That’s not what I’m trying to do at all.

        I am trying, without any hope of success, to get a few free software fundamentalists to realize that their exclusive viewpoint actually hurts the adoption of open source by the mainstream markets.


        October 19, 2009 at 6:40 pm

      • I don’t think we are far from agreement. An exclusive viewpoint is rarely helpful. I was at a conference last week on Open Source in education. One speaker talked about the way they had used a particular tool that he described as “not really proper open source, but it is free which is just as good”. Turns out he was referring to a proprietary bit of adware, with no access to the source, no route to contribute changes, nothing. It may well have been good enough for his purposes, it may well have saved him money, it certainly wasn’t Open Source and certainly wasn’t Free Software. I don’t think he did anything wrong in using this product, however I do think he was missing the point.
        I think the single vendor open core scenario is missing the point, but not by very much. With the code being open the community is much safer from the possibility of poor stewardship and forking is an available option. It is not one that in my opinion should be taken for the sake of it. If a company is providing good stewardship and is taking there role as a leading part of the community rather than trying to be the owner of the community then that is great. If not then Mambo-> Joomla! happens. This can result in one or the other failing, or could lead to both doing just fine in their own way, like SugarCRM and vtiger. It is all about community and if an open core company can be part of a community then fine, that can indeed help adoption. If they don’t build and participate in a community then however commercially attractive they may be on paper it is unlikely to achieve the goal of widespread commercial adoption.

        Alan Bell

        October 19, 2009 at 7:37 pm

      • Agree completely Alan.

        An open core company has to foster a good community otherwise they will probably fail or be forked.


        October 19, 2009 at 8:17 pm

  3. For someone who doesn’t “think its very interesting as a topic.” (from blog comment on hot dog article) you certainly write about it a lot. 🙂

    Nicholas Goodman

    October 19, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    • Hi Nick,

      Yes I did use those words, but in reference to a different topic. 😉

      What I said was that I don’t find the topic of Pentaho’s corporate positioning very interesting as I have conceded multiple times that it can be improved.

      This is an entirely different topic. One which I do find interesting.



      October 19, 2009 at 5:57 pm

      • Sure. If the “positioning” of the “business model” is considered different than “discussions” about the “business model” (it’s advocates and detractors) then I buy that.

        Nicholas Goodman

        October 19, 2009 at 8:48 pm

      • Nick,

        I was very specifically talking about Pentaho’s corporate positioning (over which I have little control and therefore not much interest), not positioning of the business model in general (over which I have no control at all, but strangely more interest).


        October 19, 2009 at 9:56 pm

  4. […] The Free Software movement limits its own future « James Dixon's Blog By admin | category: free software | tags: advocates-frequently, being-direct, give-him, […]

  5. Criterion 3 of the OSD, which is a breakout component of the FSD‘s fourth freedom, guarantees anybody the freedom to fork an open source project. Your community is free to do this with your software, which means you have a free software community on your hands whether you wanted one or not. Don’t piss it off and it might not turn on you.

    PS Each of Bradley’s posts includes an endnote denoting his preferred vector for commenting. Most specify e-mail, but the one you’re responding to asks commenters to join an Identica conversation. I can’t think of a more open venue than that.


    October 20, 2009 at 3:33 am

    • Hi Jeff, thanks for agreeing with me.

      As you say the communities of open core projects are free and they can fork if they are unhappy.

      The fact that most open core communities have not turned on the backing vendor probably indicates that they are ok with the management of the project.

      PS I did not join the identica conversation because it was nothing more than a twitter thread.


      October 20, 2009 at 3:43 am

      • We agree? Great news! My point was that your assertion that there’s some intrinsic ideological difference between free software and open source that makes them two separate movements is a straw man. I’m glad to hear that you agree on this point, since that means that you will no longer be posting this kind of inflammatory ad hominem attacks. Can we expect retractions of some of your past posts?

        PS An Identica thread is not a Twitter thread. You didn’t address my point here, which is that your assertion that Bradley doesn’t allow comments is untrue. I’m sure Bradley would appreciate a revision of your post on this factual point.


        October 20, 2009 at 11:31 am

  6. Jeff,

    Thanks for your post. Firstly I am not attacking anyone, just pointing out a flaw that I believe to be real. Notice that, so far, nobody has objected to my logic.

    You cannot say there are no ideological differences between the many people using FOSS. What I have noticed is that there are some people who are highly principled about their views and other people who are much more pragmatic. Both view points are entirely valid in my mind. In my experience those people who are highly principled tend to express the views of Richard Stallman and the Free Software movement, and those who are more pragmatic express the views of Linus Torvalds and the open source movement. If you do not agree with this delineation I am sorry, I can’t find a better one other than FOSS fundamentalists / FOSS puritans vs FOSS pragmatists and I don’t really like those.

    My point is that there are some people who hold their beliefs so strongly that, as far as I am concerned, they are limiting the potential of FOSS to grow. Those people are entitled to their beliefs, just as I am entitled to believe that they limiting the thing they love. I am not attacking anyone, just giving my opinion.

    I welcome any evidence or well-reasoned logic to show that my thoughts on this and other topics are misguided. If you disagree only with my use of terminology and delineation then that’s another thing.



    October 20, 2009 at 12:39 pm

  7. […] James Dixon claimed that the Free Software movement limits its own […]

  8. […] Core movement”, of which Mono seems to have become a part. James Dixon, the CTO of Pentaho, slams the “Free Software movement”, sometimes by playing the usual card which is to compare them to a “religion” [1, 2, […]

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