Business and open source: Oil and water?

Open source doesn't have to be inimical to business. Done right, the two are bosom buddies.

I found this Bruce Byfield article deeply intriguing...and sad at the same time. Intriguing because I think Byfield uncovers a nerve in the open-source business community, and sad for the very same reason.

While I believe Byfield is wrong to suppose that money trumps ideals in all cases--many of us actually set up our licensing to curb our worst intentions while still allowing us to serve financial interests--he is absolutely right that the tension between code freedom and cash freedom will sometimes, and perhaps often, favor the latter. Here is an excerpt that makes reference to FOSS, or free and open-source software:

...(T)he fact that business is friendly to FOSS does not mean that it has adopted its values. The free software camp's concern with philosophical and political freedom has almost certainly not been adopted by most FOSS-friendly companies, while the open source camp's emphasis on increased software quality is probably shared by middle-management at best. Business--gasp!--is interested in FOSS to improve the bottom line, and often no other reason.

...(S)ooner or later, an open-source business is going to act more like a business and less like a citizen of the FOSS community (although the wise ones will try to stay on good terms with the community in a sort of specialized marketing effort). Often, the laws that restrict the behavior of companies, especially ones that are publicly traded, leave no choice.

Perhaps. But I think Byfield's larger point--that open source is a business decision, but one among many--is more telling and need not lead to the self-contradiction that he points to in the quote above. Used wisely, open source is a way to free up customers from proprietary lock-in, which is a key selling point.

This doesn't mean, however, that every line of code and every service need be freed up: consider Red Hat's (formerly) proprietary Red Hat Network code, which for years provided the compelling value for many companies to move to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Or MySQL's more recent attempts to segment free versus paid value in its offerings, which attempt to walk the line between community and commercial (and do so quite well, in my opinion).

Commercial open source is starting to find its feet. There isn't a grand contradiction between giving code away (seeding the market) and suggesting a purchase (reaping the market). In fact, the two go together perfectly. As we realize this, open source will become even more dominant. Open source and business can be bosom buddies, not enemies.

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