Is the Closed Source Inevitable?

by Todd Ogasawara

It used to be a lot easier to understand the closed source and open source worlds in the old days. Microsoft, Sun, Oracle, and the like were closed source and wore black hats. The GNU/LAMP people were Open Source and wore white hats. This world was simple and clean. When I started looking beyond the source code and newsgroups in the early 2000s, I was surprised to see firms like Zope with a combination of Open and Closed Source products. I was a little confused by MySQL's dual license. And, Red Hat threw me for a loop when they stopped providing free downloads after Red Hat 9 (this is before the Fedora Project emerged). JBoss' professional Open Source idea seemed like a good idea me but seemed to be drawing some barbs now and then.

The Open Source community-industry has been undergoing a lot of growing pains over the past few years as it transforms from the community-contributer model to a full business model with employees, health plans, boards of directors and the like. Perhaps the Open Source business looked at Microsoft and figure their closed source model has made them a bit of money and that closed source is not that evil if it pays the biils. Personally, I was hoping that Open Source services (consulting, packaging, etc.) would be enough to keep FOSS firms afloat. But, at the moment, it looks like some closed sourcing for value added features is going to be the norm. The EnterpriseDB Postgres Plus effort looks similar to what MySQL is doing but seems to be mostly flying under the radar for the moment. And, as I mentioned, Zope has had this business model for years.

Having spent the 1990s working for a telephone company (good ol' GTE) I watched a similar transformation in the Computer Telephony and VoIP industry. The Computer Telephony Expo in the early 1990s consisted of a bunch of engineers and startups showing their wares to potential customers (often phone companies like the one I worked for). There weren't many marketing-critters in the midst. And, the only person wearing a suit and tie was usually Harry Newton (who coined the term Computer Telephony and organized the conference). By the end of the decade, the complexion of the conference had changed, I think the conference grew from 2,000 to something like 30,000 in the years that I attended. And, there were a lot more marketing critters and people in suits. In fact, I recall noting with some distaste that I had decided to wear a suit for the day I was a panel moderator there (it seemed like the right thing to do at the time). The Computer Telephony industry had grown during the decade to the point where people actually had to figure out how to make money and not just show cool IP comm gear. And, then, of course, there were the bigger companies buying the small cool ones. Intel, for example, bought Visual Voice (a very cool software firm) and Dialogic (a very cool hardware firm). Microsoft, Intel, and GTE co-sponsored the TAPI Bakeoff (an Interoperability event for vendors) for several years. As one of the event coordinators, I had a ringside seat to watch the development going on. Most of that technology is now invisible and is simply part of the infrastructure now. It is not something I actively think about unless something goes wrong (very rarely if you think about it).

I think we are seeing something very similar happening to Open Source. Sun's purchase of MySQL has set off a lot of heated discussion as Sun and MySQL tries to find a business model that can simultaneously keep the Open Source community happy while building a revenue stream. They may have found a model, but it is not exactly making everyone happy quite yet. Personally, I am watching this all with some anxiety as I depend on MySQL for a lot of projects. In the meantime, we are seeing blog titles like:

Just announced: MySQL to launch new features only in MySQL Enterprise: So, in effect, they will be giving their paying customers real, true, untested code. How is this supposed to work? In addition, this means that they are changing their internal development model, splitting the relationship between the two trees, and overall going even further down the path of getting the RHEL/Fedora model backwards.

The whole story about online backup: The business reasoning behind the decision to reserve the native modules for paying customers is that only the most demanding users have an urgent need of this feature, and I can see the value of this assessment.

Thoughts on the Fuss: I doubt that this little scheme of charging for these features ever actually takes place. It is pretty much diametrically opposed to the what Sun says they want for MySQL. I think that by the time server version 6.0 is GA that every feature will be fully available for anyone. And that is why I have not taken the time to sharpen a pitchfork and join the mob. Because in the end I don’t think this will ever happen.

The Ingres Vultures Descend: In a despicable business practice, I received a message from a PR Firm representing Ingres. Now, I even wrote about the controversy that seems to have swept the open source community; but even my writings were not completely factually correct — I wrote that even if online backups were closed it was not necessarily the worst thing in the world. The actual parts of the online backup that are not open source and free are compression and encryption — that is all. (FYI: I received a similar email from Ingres but didn't think it was despicable - just a PR firm doing its job).

The Closed-Open Source industries are in a state of extreme flux. And, it will probably take another decade to sort this all out along with web/mesh services, SaaS (Software as a Service), and service subscriptions. If the various blog reactions to various changes are any indication, it will probably be a bumpy ride. But, let's hope it all works out for the best for all parties involved in the end.

Is closed sourcing inevitable? I sure hope not. But, we'll see it play out one way or another over the next couple of years.


2008-04-23 12:21:50
The EnterpriseDB Postgres Plus effort looks similar to what MySQL is doing but seems to be mostly flying under the radar for the moment.

A big difference here is that EnterpriseDB Postgres Plus is a product built by 3rd party. MySQL AB (or Sun, if you will) are the sole owners of the MySQL code, and they do the bulk of development. PostgreSQL, on the other hand, is more of a pure open source project in the sense that no single entity owns all the code, and it's a software project--as opposed to a product--released by a community rather than a business. It uses a license that allows 3rd parties to release closed source derivative works, but it's quite a different dynamic involved.

As for the main point of your article, I'm not so sure. There're still plenty of open source projects that aren't closing parts to make money. The hybrid open/closed model does seem to have emerged as a viable strategy, but I don't think it's the only one that's successful. As you said, time will tell, but I'm not quite as sure that it's an inevitability.

2008-04-23 18:55:37
I can't even understand what point you are trying to make here. Something about how maturing industries become more mature or something?

The emergence of open source was a natural part of the evolution of the software development process. It has always been there. While the OSI claims that Open Source began when they were founded, but open source had been around for years, if not decades before. The distribution methods just have gotten a lot better.

Maybe instead, MySQL has run its course? It was cool, small and accessible for a while. But there are more ways of storing structured data now.

Your anecdote about TAPI is amusing. Who uses TAPI these days? Computer Telephony as you knew it back then, is dead and buried. The world is all about end-points talking SIP, MGCP, or sometimes H.323 directly with each other. Less and less people are trying to connect phone lines to computers, so TAPI is pretty uninteresting. It definitely fits into the marginally usefully part of the Microsoft API family. Microsoft doesn't even care about TAPI anymore either, as they are not going to make it work with .NET.

So your whole posting seems to amount to the Chewbacca Defense:
* CTI (and TAPI) was cool and wonderful for a while, and now it isn't.
* Therefore Open Source will not be cool and wonderful in the future too.