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Sun CEO: Open source = free advertising

Open source is a great way to distribute one's products and earn goodwill, but does that mean it's a good business model?

There are many reasons to love open-source software, but Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz thinks that one of its biggest benefits is free advertising. As Schwartz suggests, developers don't spend money. They spend time. That time spent with your technology, then, equates to free advertising, which advertising can presumably be be leveraged deeper into a developers' organization:

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz
Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz Stephen Shankland/CNET

[W]e freely distribute our key software assets all over the world [because] if we didn't...users and developers might pick someone else's free product (or simply use the one they assume to be free). And if they picked someone else's product on which to build their business or their application, Sun becomes a reseller - which isn't our mission or business model....

By being freely distributed, our products build their own audiences. And using the products, from Glassfish to ZFS or NetBeans, creates a branding experience (and a wildly positive one, if we're doing our jobs well). So why don't we advertise in traditional outlets? Well, every day, the number of people using our products, getting that positive branding experience, eclipses nearly all major newspapers globally, combined.

This makes Sun's $1 billion acquisition of widely distributed MySQL more understandable, but only if Sun has a way to turn all that "free advertising" into "paid adoption." So far, however, it, and every other open-source company, continues to tinker with the right model for turning downloads into dollars. Schwartz plans to address this topic in an imminent blog entry, but the real question will be whether he can do so in the market.

I think, however, that his reasoning is correct. Incumbent vendors have an interest in reaping the harvest from existing customers. Everyone else, however, has an interest in sowing new opportunities. Given that most vendors, most of the time, need new customers, open source offers a highly efficient way of "advertising" to them, to use Schwartz's nomenclature.

The real question, then, is how to turn this advertising into sales. But that's fodder for another post, both for me and for Schwartz.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.