We take these open-source truths to be self-evident

Without profits, open source would never have evolved from a relatively obscure hobbyist phenomenon.

The logic of open source is increasingly clear to a growing number of businesses. Ironically, however, that logic generally dovetails with a recognition of how to marry open source with a proprietary revenue driver.

Once you figure out the scarce good for which customers will pay, open sourcing everything else becomes a no-brainer.

Google, Red Hat, and a wide variety of other businesses have all discovered this. So has Nokia, as Glyn Moody writes:

...Once (Sebastian Nyström, vice president of application and service frameworks in Nokia's Devices unit) laid out the logic of moving to open source, there was very little resistance within the company to doing so. I think that's significant; it means that, just as the GNU GPL has been tested in various courts and found valid, so the logic behind open source--that openness allows software to spread further, and improve quicker, for the mutual benefit of all--is also increasingly accepted by hard-headed business people: it's become self-evident that it's a better way.

Sort of. What's becoming self-evident is that open source is a fantastic way to drive community value, which funnels prospective customers into purchasing proprietary value born of scarcity. Whether Google AdWords or Red Hat Network, it's the same phenomenon.

In other words, it's not that businesses have bought into the ideological allure of freedom. It's that freedom can more efficiently create a large base of prospective customers for something else.

Moody cites IBM as an example of a company that has seen the light on the benefits of open source. Indeed it has. Open source enables IBM to sell billions...in proprietary hardware, not to mention the billions in proprietary software sold on the back of open-source software, as IBM's Savio Rodrigues articulates:

In the WebSphere division, we contribute to countless open source projects, including the Apache HTTPD, Dojo Toolkit, and Eclipse Equinox projects. We then utilize code from these projects with IBM enhancements inside of WebSphere Application Server. This strategy allows us to do more with less.

Indeed, I'd argue that such open-source software commitments are easier when a company has a clear proprietary strategy to justify and monetize them .

That's why it's easy for Web 2.0 companies to shovel money into open-source development communities : open source channels more customers of their (closed) cloud offerings.

It's also why we see more vendors turn to investing in (e.g., IBM in Apache) or founding (e.g., IBM in Eclipse) open-source communities, rather than controlling their own, self-branded projects, a trend highlighted on Thursday by The 451 Group's Matt Aslett. Vendors that have proprietary selling points elsewhere don't need to control open-source code.

Cynical? No. Businesses aren't charitable organizations.

Even Google. Even MySQL . Even Red Hat. Most people tend to forget how irate "the community" became when Red Hat introduced Red Hat Advanced Server and stopped supporting its consumer customers. Red Hat was forgetting "the people" to serve "the Man."

Years later, Red Hat is considered the paragon of open-source virtue. And well it should be: Red Hat is particularly good at balancing the hard-headed realism of profits with the idealism of open-source software.

As more companies discover the strategic, pragmatic advantages of open source, we'll see even more of it. As Gartner's Brian Prentice correctly argues, "While the romantic open source narrative is failing, Open Source continues to get stronger."

For many of us, open source's allure has always been about William James pragmatism, not Richard Stallman idealism. Yes, you need the idealism to keep pragmatism honest, but without the "logic" of money (and IBM's initial $1 billion commitment to Linux), open source would never have become the global phenomenon that it is today.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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