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The new world order for open-source and commercial software


We have been living through another cold war. Not geo-political — digital. Open-source software versus commercial software has long been on the brink of going nuclear, fought in the shadows with enormous stakes and conflicting ideologies. But suddenly… perestroika! The wall quietly fell. It did not end in absolute victory, or a stalemate; convergence is a more apt term.

Just to be clear, I am talking specifically about enterprise applications. Things like enterprise content management databases, CRMs, operating systems or, my industry, portals and web experience software.

While no one would argue there aren’t some differences between open-source and commercial software, there is very little difference between the cost and quality of the software. I know this article will run contrary to some closely held beliefs, but it is time to stop thinking about open-source software and commercial software as being different.

The cloud is the great equalizer

The cloud completely changed open-source and commercial software. Indeed, most businesses are moving applications into the cloud. Software is becoming a service and IT infrastructure a metered utility. While software distribution can be almost free, services always cost money. Both commercial and open-source software companies need to adapt to the new tech economy and move to service-oriented business models. In fact, in the cloud economy open-source and commercial software essentially have the same business model.

Open source is not a philosophy or a business model …

Open source largely succeeded in the old tech economy because it offered a new distribution model — a way to sell enterprise software without needing a “briefcase on a plane.” But now the cloud and SaaS are more efficient distribution channels. Open-source companies are providing SaaS licenses, and commercial vendors are abandoning expensive upfront licenses, support and maintenance agreements.

Free is not a business model

The idea that open-source software is free has always been a myth. Everyone knows enterprise open source requires implementation, maintenance and operational costs. Most open-source costs are not even hidden. Most businesses ultimately end up buying enterprise open-source licenses and support.

Acquia is the commercial arm of the open source Web CMS Drupal. Dries Buytaert, the original creator of the Drupal project, famously said, “I want to build a billion dollar company.” You do not make a billion dollars giving software away. You make a billion dollars by selling software licenses and service contracts. Every viable open-source project now has a commercial entity and these businesses charge a lot of money for their certified software and support.

… open source is a software feature.

Yes, commercial software companies also want to make money. But that’s the point. There is no shame in making money for providing great value and service, or spending money on software to help grow your business. Whether you want to invest your time and resources supporting an open-source project, purchase licenses and support contracts or use a software-as-a-service subscription, you will invest.

It’s Coke versus Pepsi

Salesforce.com is one of the most proprietary software companies in the world. You are tethered to their business model, platform and service agreements. Yet Salesforce.com has one of the most active development ecosystems in the industry. Thousands of applications have been built on top of Salesforce.com.

SugarCRM is completely open source. Are there more applications and integrations in the Sugar ecosystem than Salesforce.com? Not by a country mile. Is Sugar a better CRM than Salesforce.com? It depends on what you need.

What about Red Hat’s Open Shift platform compared to Amazon Web Services? One company is an open-source vendor and the other is a giant online retailer. Is one platform more open than the other? Most people would not see a difference.

It’s Coke versus Pepsi.

Today “open” means more than open source. Open means that a platform can easily be extended and integrated with other applications. Web services, frameworks and APIs are application specific, not license-model specific.

You know what is open source? Microsoft ASP.NET

Believe it or not, it’s true. The new version of Microsoft ASP.NET is completely open source. It even runs natively on Linux. So did open source win? Absolutely. But you know who else wins? Commercial software vendors.

Simply choose the software that works best for your organization.

If you look at any commercial software application, there are many source components and libraries. Commercial software companies have the resources to develop the code, provide quality assurance and deliver professional support and maintenance. Commercial software has not been consumed by the open source “Borg.” Commercial vendors happily converged.

Open source is a software feature

Open source is not a philosophy or a business model: open source is a software feature. Whether the feature of modifying source code is important to you depends on your requirements.

Selecting enterprise software requires balancing a lot of considerations: software features, viability and support model of the vendor, total cost of ownership, capabilities in your company and your business strategy and growth expectations. Success takes investment. You will pay for your software whether you use open-source or commercial applications.

All software has become much more open, has shifted toward the service economy and provides powerful capabilities. Open-source vendors provide technical support; commercial software vendors provide communities.

Let’s stop the myths. There are wonderful commercial and open-source software options. Simply choose the software that works best for your organization and enjoy the peace.

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