Data's one-two punch in open-source business models

Tim O'Reilly has been saying for years that data, not open-source licenses, is the key to successful open-source businesses. We're finally listening.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Tim O'Reilly Dan Farber/CNET News

Some of us take longer than others. Tim O'Reilly moved on years ago from talking about open-source licenses and instead focused on the importance of data to business success. In the open-source industry, we heard his words but clearly didn't understand them.

We kept selling software through our "awkward teenage years," even as Google, 37Signals, Facebook, and others gave it away.

Years later, as Google pays for mountains of open-source code by aggregating data and selling data-rich services, we're starting to grok O'Reilly's message. It's what makes companies like Path Intelligence so interesting.

Redmonk's Stephen O'Grady notes:

Much has been made of the lack of an obvious revenue model for properties like Twitter, and to a lesser extent, Facebook. But when looking at the organizations' balance sheets...it seems self-evident that the value of the data assets involved is seriously underreported...

The economic value being assigned to data helps to explain why, while being sympathetic to questions about Twitter business models, I've never been overwhelmingly concerned. Where the revenue model for the dot-com era "eyeballs" strategy was equal parts indistinct and aspirational, the Web 2.0 businesses are being built out in an era of customers increasingly predisposed to analytics and data driven decision making. In other words, there's a market for their most valuable asset.

As Microsoft's Windows, Office, Xbox, and SharePoint businesses demonstrate, the real money is in the platform business, which is, or which can be, a data business. The more businesses and developers that build upon your software, the more valuable that software becomes. Even systems like Twitter are being turned into platforms.

But how you build the platform is increasingly important. Microsoft is Platform 1.0. Open source is Platform 2.0. It's a more efficient way to build community around a core, which is why Google and other savvy companies increasingly turn to open source as a fundamental way to entice developers, which developers create more software which invites more adoption which yields more data...you get the picture.

It's also why I believe Google Android, in its platform battle with Apple's iPhone, will ultimately prevail, so long as it can work in peaceful coexistence with the developer community (which has not always been the case).

Unlike many open-source companies, however, Google et al. have the singular benefit that since their business is data, not software, they can shepherd open-source development without taking a heavy hand in community management. More open source leads to more adoption, which leads to more data, which leads to the Googles of the world being able to give away even more software for "less than free."

It's genius. And it's amazing that it took so many of us so long to heed the counsel O'Reilly offered years ago.

In sum, this isn't a suggestion that companies should forgo profits in exchange for mindless popularity contests, as 37Signals' Jason Fried rightly pillories.

Instead, it's a call to look for ways to fund open-source development with rich, data-driven businesses. Most open-source companies focus too much on software, and most Web 2.0 companies focus too much on data. It's the blend of the two that makes a company successful.

Just ask Google.

(As an end note, I think Gartner's Brian Prentice is on to something when he speculates that enterprise applications may increasingly be communally developed by IT end users, though perhaps coordinated by vendors. It's a very interesting prospect, one that will enable even more open-source development in an area where data may not fund it.)