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Mozilla may hold the clues to the future of commercial open source

Mozilla knows the way forward for commercial open source, even if it doesn't know that it knows.

Much is rightly made about the quality of open-source software like JBoss and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. These, however, are arguably not the source of the quality of the businesses behind them. Their networks were/are.

JBoss was doing well before it created the JBoss Operational Network using Hyperic's software as a foundation. But it was the Network that dramatically boosted JBoss' renewal rate and ASPs (as JBoss lead investor David Skok noted in his OSBC 2007 presentation). Red Hat was Red Hat before it had Red Hat Network (RHN), but RHN gave customers an easy justification for paying for what they could get for free elsewhere.

The Network, in other words, is the not-so-secret sauce that makes great open-source companies. The principle behind it is to give the "core" software away to lower the cost of sales and marketing, while providing "complementary" services like an RHN to facilitate a purchase.

Which brings me to Mozilla.

An RHN or JBoss Operational Network makes a lot of sense for some software: deliver patches, monitor the health of systems, etc. But they're not a great fit for applications. A better fit is thethe way Mozilla delivers updates (both its own and third-party updates) to Firefox.

Think about it. SugarCRM is an interesting application in part because of the software the company provides, but perhaps much more so for the software its partners build around it. What happens when SugarCRM updates its CRM system to version 5.4.3? Will the add-ons and extensions break?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know what happens in Firefox, because the system takes care of managing all updates for me, both to the core system and to all the add-ons that I've chosen to install. This, to me, suggests the future of open-source application monetization and delivery, and would be a huge improvement over how most proprietary software manages updates today (just as Red Hat broke new ground with RHN, setting a new standard for ease of software delivery).

Every open-source application company (and probably infrastructure companies, as well) should be looking for Mozilla-savvy developers and project managers to build out their networks. Mozilla has figured it out. Mozilla may not have all the right answers today, but it is at least asking the right questions.