To find money in open source, look for IP owners

Rod Johnson, the creator of the popular open-source Spring framework, has boiled down the question of open-source business viability to a simple formula.

"If you want open source to thrive, find people who create the intellectual property and talk to them," says Johnson.

Johnson is also CEO of Interface21, which provides installation and support services around the Spring framework, which enterprise programmers use to speed up Java development and deployment.

Interface 21 is one of several smaller companies looking to build long-term businesses around open-source software. Although there are some clear success stories, like Red Hat and MySQL, Johnson like other software executives admit that it's a relatively new industry.

Johnson says that his company has grown rapidly and that open source has provided a very efficient way to distribute Spring. But, he notes, customers need some education in how open source functions.

He argued that to create innovative products, somebody needs to be paid. Paying the programmers of a given project directly through support contracts is the best way to ensure that product will endure, he said.

Another danger is corporate customers using internal staff to support open source products or contracting with an "aggregator" that doesn't contribute to a project it supports, he said.

But even with these challenges, Johnson like many other software executives sees no alternative to open source.

"There are risks about the open-source industry but there is no alternative," he said. "This business is the future of software."

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