Open-source software, depending on the model and the organizations relying on it, often makes better sense as an ideal than a business reality. And perhaps for that reason, we’re starting to see more cracks than usual in the model.
The big knock came last week, when the makers of the containerization software Docker decided to limit access to its desktop application, with the goal of getting high-end enterprise customers to pay money to continue using it. (The command-line app remains free and open source.) The company was once on top of the open-source world, but its profile has right-sized a bit, and as a result, it’s in turnaround mode as it attempts to ensure that this common programming tool also works as a business.
Docker has made a point for making it free to use for smaller customers, including existing open-source projects. But if your company makes more than $10 million or has more than 250 employees, Docker wants a cut.
Somewhat more dramatic is a shift by the long-running visual programming tool LiveCode, which has been offered in open-source form for nearly a decade, but is seeing the genie being let into the bottle again after finding it wasn’t building the community support to make it worth the trouble.
Speaking to The Register, LiveCode CEO Kevin Miller noted that the company found more users of the open-source tool than purchasers of the full-fat application.
"We've been an open source platform for round about eight years … we've seen user base grow consistently during that period and some of you have even made contributions to the platform,” he said. “However, a lot of our user base has moved to using the open source edition… unfortunately that leaves us in a position where we don't have the level of resources that we need to take the platform forward."
Essentially, since LiveCode is a low-code development tool, the very types of people that used it were the types of people who could not really add much to the platform from a programming standpoint, making the model less beneficial than it could be.
These stories are not isolated—earlier this year, October CMS went paid after starting life as an open-source tool, and there have been companies like Redis that have faced serious licensing restructurings after their open-source applications effectively were resold by cloud providers like Amazon Web Services.
This is a complicated problem, and one that isn’t necessarily cut and dry. The popular database platform MongoDB, for example, is killing it on the stock market, as are other open-source-driven companies, model challenges aside.
So much of this is the result of the fact that open source, the concept, doesn’t entirely jibe with open source, the moneymaking business model. OSS has often struggled with the ethical limitations of its existing licenses … in that, there are none, leading to ethical variants of open-source licenses such as the Hippocratic License. None of these will be perfect, and it’s arguable that you might want an extremely permissive license when it comes to open source. (At a very high level: The BSD and MIT licenses let you get away with a lot; the GNU General Public License requires you give back just as you give.)
I wonder, as years go on, if open source licenses will have to evolve to match the business needs of others. If it does, let’s hope it does so carefully … and if it doesn’t, we allow companies like LiveCode to take a step back.
That said, in case you need a reminder of where I stand, I love LAMP.
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