Working for an open source software company I get a lot of questions about the open source business model. This article is written to explain open source for the non-professionals. It’s not written for the IT-expert but for all those others that are looking for some basic understanding. It’s the story I tell to explain our company.
When we think open source software, we may have a vision of enthusiastic amateurs spending their spare time creating code. And although still a lot of individuals are contributing to open source projects, a lot of contributions come from professionals and companies.
But why would a company spend the time of their (paid) employees on developing software that anyone, including their competitors can use? Why is that a better use of their time than creating your own proprietary intellectual property? To answer this question a little more understanding about the open source business model is needed.
Open source software means everybody can use the software for free. But everybody can also make changes or additions to the software. As long as this code is also made available as open source. There are thousands of open source projects. For a company it’s often more efficient to use the software that’s already developed than starting to develop from scratch. And adding to the project will result in software that includes your requirements. And so many people contributing from so many different backgrounds and perspectives means much more innovation than creating from the vision of a single company or person.
Giving this software back to the open source community means people are looking at your code, using it, testing it. So open source also means you have more extensive quality control than you could ever do yourself. The complete transparency makes no error or mistake is hidden.
The variety and quality of open source software makes it very interesting for companies to use it. And also the fact that it is free adds to the attraction. However with that comes a complexity. Selecting from thousands of projects and making sure all these pieces work well together is a complex task. And getting the right level of support from all these individual projects is also more complex than addressing a single-vendor, as one would do in a classic environment.
That’s where open source companies are playing a role. These companies bundle a large number of open source projects together into a product (like an operating system, a database or a management solution), make sure these components work well together and provide support to the complete product. These companies create enterprise-grade products with enterprise-class support from these high-quality and highly innovative pieces of software.
So as a company there are a lot of benefits you get from working with open source. First the total number of people working on the projects is way beyond your own staff. Resulting into higher production and higher innovation. Most programmers prefer open source above proprietary models. So it allows you to attract the most talented people. The transparency makes that your product has the highest quality. And the support is what brings in the money. In fact there are so many benefits to open source that you wonder why we still have traditional software companies.
Disclosure: I work for SUSE, but this article is strictly my personal opinion and story.