Gartner has long since tied the definition of Open Source Software to the underlying license agreement. If software code is covered under a license recognized by OSI it’s open source. Otherwise, it’s not.
Simple and straightforward.
The focal point for any open source activity has been the project. That’s the center of gravity for community participation. That then poses a very interesting question. Is there such thing as an “open source company.” Or, is it just a superfluous marketing overlay?
In order for this to be a valid concept there needs to be set of criteria that can unambiguously qualify, or disqualify, an organization from being an open source company? What should that be? Let’s consider the options.
Maybe it’s the mere existence of an open source solution in an organization’s product portfolio. That scarcely seems fair as it would make Microsoft as much an open source company as Red Hat. Maybe it should be the number of open source products as a percentage of the whole portfolio? What that percentage is I have no idea but let’s, for argument’s sake, make that at least 50%. But again, that would make Daffodil CRM more of an open source company than Oracle. Not taking anything away from Daffodil but their modest CRM solution doesn’t really compare to Oracle’s pretty significant commitment just to Linux alone.
Maybe then we should look at revenue? If, for example, an organization makes a majority of their revenue from open source then we should consider them an open source company. Unfortunately, it’s not logical to bestow a category to a vendor only if it’s a majority of their revenue. We wouldn’t, for example, deny SAP the right to be considered an important business intelligence vendor because they don’t derive a majority of their revenue from those products. Apple an mobile phone company? Not by those rules. Additionally, that would take Google right out of consideration since they make their money from search-driven advertising. Surely Google – with their commitment to using and contributing to existing open source projects while also creating new ones – should be considered an open source company.
But if we go back to Gartner’s definition of open source software it does highlight an important point about a software provider’s revenue. The right to modify and redistribute – key provisions in an OSI license agreement – make it pretty silly for one organization to try making money directly from an open source project. The more successful they are in doing so, the more likely someone will come along and snatch a portion of their revenue by forking the project. Therefore, organizations make their money indirectly. Open source ultimately ends up being surrounded by a layer of proprietary, commercial offerings.
All organizations are the same – the only difference is in the approach they choose. Some organizations will link proprietary software products to open source offerings. This is clearly the strategy that VMWare hopes to use with their recent acquisition of SpringSource. Other organizations will use proprietary services. That’s what Red Hat and Accenture are doing (given that the expertise needed in provisioning support and development capability is hired in and managed by these companies). In fact, I’d suggest you can look at Google the same way – they provide an advertising service on top of an OSS operating environment.
The thing is that we are rapidly moving to the point where all software companies will, to some extent, be an open source company. So, what’s the point of trying to create an arbitrary distinction that really is little more than an attempt to paint one type of business model (like the services approach) in a better light the others.
At the end of the day there are open source projects and communities that support them. Then there are companies which seek to leverage open source projects, and their communities, for commercial advantage. But, there is no such thing as an open source company.
Simple and straightforward.