The debate about whether vendors can thrive and scale if their primary outputs are freely licensed continues to brew nearly two years since I wrote about the topic. Basing a business on an open source strategy is undoubtedly challenging, because no matter how many times you quote Richard Stallman that software freedom means “free speech,” not “free beer,” there is a persistent expectation that open source means free: free software, free updates, free knowledge, free support.
In part, the confusion comes because a lot of GPL software is “free as in beer.” Many open source projects come from individuals or small groups coalescing around a problem they want to solve. They publish their output for free because they want others to join their effort.
But it’s a myth that volunteer software programmers are architecting application software suitable for enterprise deployments. It’s rare for volunteer- and community-based projects to scale without sponsors, such as large multinationals, foundations, or government grants funding paid-for project management, design, and development inputs. My own involvement in open source came from leading a government-funded consortium project involving 20 universities and other education institutions contributing to Moodle, then establishing the Mahara project and a wider community site called Eduforge.
I soon learned that the vagary of external funding is not a long-term sustainability model.
A challenging environment
Many commercially derived open source projects also end up being freely available. It’s hard not to when it’s so easy for someone else to undercut your offer with the very same code you wrote. If not entirely “free as in beer,” significant downward pressures on price remain. So, trying to be a successful open source vendor is not for the faint hearted.