Open source in name only?

While doing some investigation for the upcoming Software Freedom Day event to be held at the State Library of Victoria on 18th September, an interesting trend emerged. As I browsed the plethora of free and open source software (FOSS) tools available in different disciplines, it became clear that many so-called ‘open source’ products were presented as such, but were free only in the form of ‘community editions’. Fully featured ‘premium’ versions of the product were only available in paid form. Is this an increasing trend toward open source in name only, with scant lip service paid to the principles of freedom, knowledge sharing and the greater good that ‘old school’ open source strives so hard for? Or is it a inevitable conclusion driven by market forces?

On one hand the stratification of products into ‘community’ and ‘premium’ editions goes some way to solving a dilemma which has plagued the open source sector for decades; how to derive value from a product which does not cost money to obtain. By encouraging adopters to ‘try’ the community edition and providing a seamless upgrade path to the paid version, the ‘owners’ of the open source product build a user base, while the user base is able to get access to a product for minimal financial risk – a seemingly win-win situation.

However, there are a number of problems here. Firstly, if a product starts out as open source and manages to generate an active developer and support community, with contributions made on a good will basis, what happens when that product is forked? Often, the ‘community edition’ is neglected and left to rot, while development effort (and money) is invested into the ‘premium’ edition. This is exactly what has happened to DimDim, once a truly open source product now split into a defunct open source ‘community’ fork, alongside a cloud service (albeit some offerings of which are free).  A similar thing has happened to KnowledgeTree, which once offered a community version alongside its premium, fully featured product. The community edition is no more. Other examples – which still sport community editions –  include SugarCRM and JasperSoft.

If I were a developer who had contributed to the original open source product, I would certainly feel cheated that the eventual product did not exhibit the same commitment to freedom, sharing, community, and the greater good that the antecedent did.

Perhaps the core issue here is one of branding. The term ‘open source’ connotes a sense of freedom; of contributing something for the greater good. There is a sense of emotional identification with a product or organisation which promotes itself as open source; it is a statement which says ‘we’re not just in this for the money’. However, I firmly believe that many organisations are simply using the phrase ‘open source’ as a hollow marketing tool, when their product suite does not reflect the core values of the open source community – free as in beer and free as in freedom.

So what is the answer? Projects like WordPress have employed a different tactic; here a suite of value-adding services such as hosting and personal support are being provided, while the base product remains completely free and open source. To me this is the preferable model – as the product itself remains free, while the organisation can add value (and derive a profit) while enhancing – rather than detracting – from the code base.

Regulation – such as stipulating standards against which organisations must comply if they are to label their products as ‘open source’ are likely to fail in a globalised environment with multiple jurisdictions and no imperative for monitoring.

Perhaps the answer lies in developers and end users becoming more savvy – and being discerning enough to recognise when a product – and the philosophy behind it – is truly open source; and when ‘open source’ is just another buzzword on a marketing brochure.

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