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Commercial open source's awkward teen years

The Web has changed the way software businesses conduct business, but it has yet to match revenue models to delivery mechanisms, leaving a conflict between free-software purists and open-source pragmatists.

At this week's Oscon conference, someone asked me what the secret to commercializing open-source software is, as if a secret cabal has been jealously guarding some arcane knowledge.

My response? "There is no secret: we simply don't know how to do it very well yet."

One thing, however, is clear: while the Web promises a brave new world of technical and financial prosperity, getting there from here is still very much in doubt. If we think of companies like Google as Software 2.0 and old-school vendors like IBM as Software 1.0, this leaves open-source vendors like Pentaho, MySQL, Zenoss, SugarCRM, etc. as very much Software 1.5 companies.

Or as tech journalist Glyn Moody suggests, we are in a "transitional phase, neither fish nor fowl."

I couldn't agree more.

To borrow Moody's nomenclature, much of the friction between free-software purists and open-source pragmatists stems from the malaise inherent in such an in-between state. The free-software advocates want out of the 1.0 world as soon as possible, but the vast majority of customers aren't ready to dive into Software 2.0, which leaves vendors uneasily borrowing from 1.0 business models while stretching toward 2.0 Web-based delivery mechanisms.

It's an ugly compromise at times, but it's unclear how to navigate it more cleanly than the industry already is.

Those of us working for Software 1.5 companies earnestly wish the future were already here. But after years of trying to abandon any remnants of proprietary software, it has become clear to many of us that the market--while ready to adopt open source on a grand scale--has yet to figure out how to pay for it.

I'd love nothing more than to give 100 percent of my software away for free and then charge for the service of maintaining it over the Web, or selling ads alongside content, or whatever. But the cold reality is that few enterprises actually want this, as measured by dollars they're spending. Not yet, anyway.

We are an industry in transition. Our business models have yet to catch up our delivery models. Until they do, expect a fair amount of conflict between a company's best intentions and the exigency-driven compromise.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.