The “Value Proposition” of Open Source


As I spoke with a few attendees at OSCON, it occurred to me that no one has every really defined the intrinsic value of Open Source. Many people have lauded Open Source in general and listed its virtues, but what, precisely would make an open source piece of software necessarily better than a proprietary cousin or competitor. To put it in an ugly VC term that makes me cringe whenever I hear it, what is Open Source’s “value proposition.” Or to put it more bluntly, does it actually have one?

I sat in the audience at Matt Asay’s panel ‚ÄúThe True Costs of Open Source‚Äù and listened intently for demonstrations of Open Source value. Zack Urlocker, of MySQL/Sun/Oracle fame, mentioned simplicity of acquisition and use, as well as its free-as-in-beer qualities. Barry Klawans of SFO (yes, the airport) mentioned lower TCO. Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond chimed in with some hard numbers that confirmed, yes, price is important, and yes, IT chaps can lower their TCO with Open Source. There was also some talk that because you also needed more talented IT folks to deploy Open Source solutions (their words), part of that cost savings is actually offset by higher personnel costs.

When I approached attendees with the question of Open Source value, I got many of the same responses, and many of them came down to cost, but there were also mentions of freedom, community and the opportunity cost of *not* releasing Open Source code. I also heard access to source, but I’m inclined to discount it’s importance to most users. In fact, when considered individually, none of these benefits explain the continuing popularity of Open Source software. Cost comes down to the vendor, who is free to set a price that guarantees widespread success.

Simplicity, as mentioned by Urlocker, is a function of engineering and product management. Freedom may be defined in many ways, but if you’re talking about the freedom to use as you want, without going through a middleman, and the freedom to install and distribute wherever you like, then those terms may be written into any proprietary software EULA. If freedom means the freedom of writing any plugin or widget I want, then we’re back to engineering and product management. Freedom could also mean freedom from vendor lock-in and the ability to move data freely to whatever desired platform. It would seem that this is a matter of vendors operating more intelligently and recognizing the reality of doing business in the 21st Century.

Considering Open Source Benefits in Totality

So, none of these benefits, considered individually, would seem to require the release of software under an Open Source license. When I listened to Zack Urlocker elucidate the benefits of cheaper software and removing friction, i.e., taking the sales guy out of the equation, it occurred to me that any vendor can release a free binary, remove the more arcane restrictions and allow redistribution, and document its free API. And yet, those vendors who release free binaries *do* keep these restrictions a vast majority of the time. I call them “designed to fail” restrictions. I have seen almost all major vendors release major pieces of software under an Open Source license, but very few have released an unrestricted binary. What are the possible reasons for this?

The answer may lie in there being no one specific thing that makes Open Source valuable, but rather it’s all of the above in their totality. After all, if you’re going to take the time to remove restrictions from a binary release, why not go ahead and release the source as well? At that point, there’s very little added risk for the vendor, assuming there are no 3rd party licensing issues to resolve, and you just might benefit from unforeseen innovations. Furthermore, releasing software under an Open Source license provides explicit guarantees to the end user, giving them a tried and true framework to operate with.

All About the Open Source Brand?

If true, then the real power of Open Source lies in the totality of these benefits and its success as a trusted brand. You can build community around proprietary products (see, e.g., Apple) and you can lower the cost of anything to zero, but it seems that the only way to guarantee all of the above is to release your software under an Open Source license. If true, then Open Source licensing has created a self-sustaining regulated market that allows for new innovation as well as the co-existence of commercial and non-commercial initiatives. This would also be a manifestation of the success of Open Source as a brand.

The Open Source brand has been successfully defined as providing freedom from vendor lock-in, establishing a community of users and developers, and enabling any user to be successful, regardless of the size of their wallet. The establishment of this regulated market makes the implicit statement about fairness: that playing in the world of cost-free products necessarily means agreeing to some restrictions that protect users and developers over the long-term.

In the next article, I will consider the implications of this branding success and how it fosters more Open Source development.