Looking for the Path

March 22, 2004 by admin

Open source software is enjoying increasing popularity. Spectacular decisions reported in the media, such as that of the city of Munich to adopt the Linux desktop, are only the tip of the iceberg. In most companies, open source software is a reality today. Such products as Linux, the Apache Web server, and the MySQL database are part of the standard IT environment. According to the Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) report of Berlecon Research, 44% of all German companies and organizations use products from the open source community. This number places Germany in the lead among European countries. About 31.5% of all organizations in the United Kingdom use open source software; in Sweden the total reaches only 18%. Developing and threshold countries are especially interested in open source software. China has followed a consistent open source strategy for some time. And the government of South Africa wants to see more open source products in its agencies.

Free, but not without charge

The essential characteristic of open source software is that its source code is available to anyone free of charge and may be changed at will. Numerous types of company and license models have been developed based upon this principle. In particular, the models focus on questions of usage rights. Since 1984, when Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, developed the GNU’s Not UNIX (GNU) license for the free UNIX he had developed, countless types of open source licenses have been developed. However, all of them have one thing in common. The “free” in free software does not mean “no charge.” Open source software is free in the sense that everyone has access to its code. Most license models do not prohibit commercial use and distribution of the products as long as access to the code remains free. These licenses have attracted public interest only recently, when SCO, a UNIX supplier, accused the Linux community of thievery and cast the legality of the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) into doubt.

The problem: earning a profit

But it’s not only the conflict between Linux fans and SCO (which will occupy the courts for some time) that has created insecurity in the open source camp. The takeover of Nuremberg-based Linux company SuSE AG by Novell rekindled discussion of the future of open source software. The question is how to create a sustainable business model based upon free software. If the first generation of open source providers hoped to cover their financial needs with support offerings, they have recently been disillusioned. Only a few pioneering firms were able to survive over the long term, and even fewer earned a profit. But this issue is an important consideration for professional users in the enterprise environment. How can the maintenance of a system be guaranteed when the manufacturer doesn’t exist any longer?

Heterogeneous software

In theory, the model of open software development is immune to such problems because the code is freely and publicly accessible. But even in the open source community, conflicts between developers or the retreat of leadership from a project have caused an early end to exciting developments. It would be incorrect to lump the entire open source scene together. The open source community is an open community whose members bring with them the most varied motivations, interests, and ideologies.
Essentially, three variants of open source software development can be distinguished: industry-supported development, nonprofit development, and open source companies. Each can function in the long term.
OpenOffice.org is one of the most prominent representatives of industry-supported development. OpenOffice.org is an offshoot of the StarOffice suite from Sun Microsystems. Sun not only gave the majority of the required code to the community, but also offered a salary to some of its developers. Ideally, symbiosis occurs. The community receives access to important programs from the manufacturer, and the manufacturer receives additional developments and suggestions from the community.
Nonprofit development can also be very successful. Surprisingly, one of the most successful open source projects is explicitly not oriented to commercial goals. The Apache Software Foundation and its Web server of the same name is a backbone of the Internet. Apache is far and away the market leader in this area. The foundation supports itself from contributions and the high number of participating companies. These kinds of projects usually develop foundational technologies.
Linux distributors, in particular, have become well-known open source companies, although only a few of them have been able to earn a profit. Red Hat is one of the best-known examples. Its attempt to mix free and proprietary products appears to promise success. Ximian also follows this path. Its core product is Evolution, a free clone of Microsoft Outlook. However, license fees are required for other software, such as Ximian Connector, which links the Evolution client with Microsoft Exchange Servers. Ximian now belongs to Novell.

The second generation

The Swedish database manufacturer MySQL AB has followed an unusual path to meet the company’s demands for market share. Its core product is the MySQL database, which is among the most popular open source products and is a constant presence, especially in the area of Web databases. For the enterprise market, MySQL also includes the MaxDB database in its portfolio, a solution developed jointly with SAP as the successor to SAP DB. In addition to free download, all MySQL products can also be obtained with a commercial license. The commercial license releases its holder from the requirements of the GNU GPL. (Article about MaxDB).
Nevertheless, the model is quite controversial within the community. According to one charge, software manufacturers would exploit the creativity and dedication of the unpaid members of the community to earn profits based upon their work. Mårten Mickos, the CEO of MySQL AB, rejects that charge. “The majority of our code basis is developed by our employees. They work for us as normal employees.” The code went back completely into the community, which made an important contribution by performing ample tests on new developments. According to Mickos, the dual license model meets the requirements of the industry and of independent software vendors (ISVs) for protection of their own developments. It also simultaneously opens the product up to a wider group of users. “We’re an open source company of the second generation,” says Mickos, defining his own position.

Acceptance and rejection from the community

Although hardliners reject commercial use, other community members see this model as a contribution to the open source movement. One example is Robert Kaiser, leader of the German-speaking localization project of the Mozilla Web browser. This student of chemistry and physics and prospective teacher spends about six to eight hours a week translating the Mozilla interface. He works for free on the project in his spare time and has no problem if a company eventually makes his work part of a commercial product. “As long as these firms also put their own developments in the products, I think it’s legitimate. Actually, it benefits the community when new code comes back to the community in this model,” says Kaiser. But it’s also important that commercial companies treat the volunteer developers in the community with respect and do not endanger the open source community. According to Kaiser’s estimates, the involvement of firms in the community has increased noticeably in the last few years.

Room for several models

A time of probation has begun for open source. As the industry uses more and more free software, the demands of users change. All teammates in the world of open source will increasingly demand professionalism. One part of the community finds this development difficult, but others applaud working shoulder to shoulder with IT manufacturers. Luckily, open source is a wide enough field to leave room for both viewpoints – now and in the future. Products like MaxDB can hardly be realized without the involvement of commercial companies. And an IT manufacturer would find it difficult to carry the numerous basic developments offered by the Apache Software Foundation – even for purely economic reasons. And a look at complex entities, such as the LAMP server, makes it clear the strength of open source software lies in the collaboration of all participants. Only the combination of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and the PHP script language resulted in a rounded product. There are as many paths to long-term success as there are products and reasons for involvement with open source software. Anyone interested in the use of free software in the enterprise environment must remain conscious of that reality.

Jan Schulze

Jan Schulze


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