Open Source Strategies

A blog about open source software and business models, enterprise software, and the opentaps Open Source ERP + CRM Suite.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Can Open Source Survive?

Thoughts on another commonly asked question about open source software.

Another common question people ask about open source software is:
Who will be around to support it?

Open source software is not singled out for persecution here. The availability of long term support is a key concern for enterprise users. Smaller commercial software vendors are often asked to disclose their financial information to prospective clients. Their larger cousins are, in turn, peppered with questions about potential mergers, acquisitions, or restructurings.

There is an added concern with open source software, though. Many users are concerned that companies which "give away" their product are repeating the worst follies of the dot-com era. In other words, will you be around to support me?

The answer is usually YES. As an open source project becomes mature, there will emerge many viable options for support. In fact, support prospects can be better for open source products, for one simple reason:

With commercial software, you depend on a single vendor for support. In open source, you can rely on a whole network of other users and suppport organizations.

With commercial software, the original vendor is the one with the source code. There may be various partners, but without access to the source code, what they can do is limited. The vendor will support its products because that's what its customers want, but it may stop doing so if:
  1. it goes out of business;
  2. it is acquired, and the new owners have other plans;
  3. it decides, rightly or wrongly, that it can no longer afford to continue supporting this product;
  4. it wants its customers to upgrade to a newer version and strategically decides to withdraw support for an older one.
In addition, remember that the focus of a commercial software vendor is generating new licensing revenue, not supporting existing installations. This is what their investors want, what their sales and marketing teams' mission is, and what their best engineers are reserved for.

In open source communities, by contrast, there is an active support ecology of users, developers, and service providers. Users and developers support each other through mailing lists, while service providers offer their clients commercial-quality support through traditional formats.

Thus, open source support is never dependent on any particular group being around. In fact, as long as there are other users, there is support for an open source project. The loss of a particular group in the support network could even be viewed as a business opportunity for others to jump in and fill a vacuum.

Now let's consider an interesting real life example:

In 1998, Netscape open sourced its browser under the Mozilla Foundation. At the time, Netscape had a multi-billion dollar market value and was one of the most influential companies in the industry. Most people would have bet on Netscape rather than the open source Mozilla Foundation to continue pushing its product forward.

Yet exactly the opposite has happened. In 2004, Time Warner which merged with AOL which bought Netscape announced that Netscape 9.0 would be the last release of this once revolutionary product. In the meantime, though, Mozilla lives in open source and has been reincarnated as the Firefox browseer. With all the security concerns about Internet Explorer, it is now gaining market share at IE's expense, in an unlikely sequel to the browser wars.

So there you have it: The flagship product of a multibillion dollar commercial software vendor has disappeared, while its sibling lives on and thrives in open source.

Now do you think open source can survive?

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