The Mythical Economic Model of Open Source

It has become fashionable today to study open source through the lens of economic benefits to developers and sometimes draw rather alarming conclusions. It has also become fashionable to assume a business model tie and then berate the open source community, or their licences, for lack of leadership when the business model fails. The purpose of this article is to explain, in the first part, the fallacy of assuming any economic tie in open source at all and, in the second part, go on to explain how economics in open source is situational and give an overview of some of the more successful models.

Open Source is a Creative Intellectual Endeavour

All the creative endeavours of humanity, like art, science or even writing code, are often viewed as activities that produce societal benefit. Logically, therefore, the people who engage in them are seen as benefactors of society, but assuming people engage in these endeavours purely to benefit society is mostly wrong. People engage in creative endeavours because it satisfies some deep need within themselves to exercise creativity and solve problems often with little regard to the societal benefit. The other problem is that the more directed and regimented a creative endeavour is, the less productive its output becomes. Essentially to be truly creative, the individual has to be free to pursue their own ideas. The conundrum for society therefore is how do you harness this creativity for societal good if you can’t direct it without stifling the very creativity you want to harness? Obviously society has evolved many models that answer this (universities, benefactors, art incubation programmes, museums, galleries and the like) with particular inducements like funding, collaboration, infrastructure and so on.

Why Open Source development is better than Proprietary

Simply put, the Open Source model, involving huge freedoms to developers to decide direction and great opportunities for collaboration stimulates the intellectual creativity of those developers to a far greater extent than when you have a regimented project plan and a specific task within it. The most creatively deadening job for any engineer is to find themselves strictly bound within the confines of a project plan for everything. This, by the way, is why simply allowing a percentage of paid time for participating in Open Source seems to enhance input to proprietary projects: the liberated creativity has a knock on effect even in regimented development. However, obviously, the goal for any Corporation dependent on code development should be to go beyond the knock on effect and actually employ open source methodologies everywhere high creativity is needed.

What is Open Source?

Open Source has it’s origin in code sharing models, permissive from BSD and reciprocal from GNU. However, one of its great values is the reasons why people do open source aren’t the same reasons why the framework was created in the first place. Today Open Source is a framework which stimulates creativity among developers and helps them create communities, provides economic benefits to corportations (provided they understand how to harness them) and produces a great societal good in general in terms of published reusable code.

Economics and Open Source

As I said earlier, the framework of Open Source has no tie to economics, in the same way things like artistic endeavour don’t. It is possible for a great artist to make money (as Picasso did), but it’s equally possible for a great artist to live all their lives in penury (as van Gough did). The demonstration of the analogy is that trying to measure the greatness of the art by the income of the artist is completely wrong and shortsighted. Developing the ability to exploit your art for commercial gain is an additional skill an artist can develop (or not, as they choose) it’s also an ability they could fail in and in all cases it bears no relation to the societal good their art produces. In precisely the same way, finding an economic model that allows you to exploit open source (either individually or commercially) is firstly a matter of choice (if you have other reasons for doing Open Source, there’s no need to bother) and secondly not a guarantee of success because not all models succeed. Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate this is through the lens of personal history.

Why I got into Open Source

As a physics PhD student, I’d always been interested in how operating systems functioned, but thanks to the BSD lawsuit and being in the UK I had no access to the actual source code. When Linux came along as a distribution in 1992, it was a revelation: not only could I read the source code but I could have a fully functional UNIX like system at home instead of having to queue for time to write up my thesis in TeX on the limited number of department terminals.

After completing my PhD I was offered a job looking after computer systems in the department and my first success was shaving a factor of ten off the computing budget by buying cheap pentium systems running Linux instead of proprietary UNIX workstations. This success was nearly derailed by an NFS bug in Linux but finding and fixing the bug (and getting it upstream into the 1.0.2 kernel) cemented the budget savings and proved to the department that we could handle this new technology for a fraction of the cost of the old. It also confirmed my desire to poke around in the Operating System which I continued to do, even as I moved to America to work on Proprietary software.

In 2000 I got my first Open Source break when the product I’d been working on got sold to a silicon valley startup, SteelEye, whose business plan was to bring High Availability to Linux. As the only person on the team with an Open Source track record, I became first the Architect and later CTO of the company, with my first job being to make the somewhat eccentric Linux SCSI subsystem work for the shared SCSI clusters LifeKeeper then used. Getting SCSI working lead to fund interactions with the Linux community, an Invitation to present on fixing SCSI to the Kernel Summit in 2002 and the maintainership of SCSI in 2003. From that point, working on upstream open source became a fixture of my Job requirements but progressing through Novell, Parallels and now IBM it also became a quality sought by employers.

I have definitely made some money consulting on Open Source, but it’s been dwarfed by my salary which does get a boost from my being an Open Source developer with an external track record.

The Primary Contributor Economic Models

Looking at the active contributors to Open Source, the primary model is that either your job description includes working on designated open source projects so you’re paid to contribute as your day job
or you were hired because of what you’ve already done in open source and contributing more is a tolerated use of your employer’s time, a third, and by far smaller group is people who work full-time on Open Source but fund themselves either by shared contributions like patreon or tidelift or by actively consulting on their projects. However, these models cover existing contributors and they’re not really a route to becoming a contributor because employers like certainty so they’re unlikely to hire someone with no track record to work on open source, and are probably not going to tolerate use of their time for developing random open source projects. This means that the route to becoming a contributor, like the route to becoming an artist, is to begin in your own time.

Users versus Developers

Open Source, by its nature, is built by developers for developers. This means that although the primary consumers of open source are end users, they get pretty much no say in how the project evolves. This lack of user involvement has been lamented over the years, especially in projects like the Linux Desktop, but no real community solution has ever been found. The bottom line is that users often don’t know what they want and even if they do they can’t put it in technical terms, meaning that all user driven product development involves extensive and expensive product research which is far beyond any open source project. However, this type of product research is well within the ability of most corporations, who can also afford to hire developers to provide input and influence into Open Source projects.

Business Model One: Reflecting the Needs of Users

In many ways, this has become the primary business model of open source. The theory is simple: develop a traditional customer focussed business strategy and execute it by connecting the gathered opinions of customers to the open source project in exchange for revenue for subscription, support or even early shipped product. The business value to the end user is simple: it’s the business value of the product tuned to their needs and the fact that they wouldn’t be prepared to develop the skills to interact with the open source developer community themselves. This business model starts to break down if the end users acquire developer sophistication, as happens with Red Hat and Enterprise users. However, this can still be combatted by making sure its economically unfeasible for a single end user to match the breadth of the offering (the entire distribution). In this case, the ability of the end user to become involved in individual open source projects which matter to them is actually a better and cheaper way of doing product research and feeds back into the synergy of this business model.

This business model entirely breaks down when, as in the case of the cloud service provider, the end user becomes big enough and technically sophisticated enough to run their own distributions and sees doing this as a necessary adjunct to their service business. This means that you can no-longer escape the technical sophistication of the end user by pursuing a breadth of offerings strategy.

Business Model Two: Drive Innovation and Standardization

Although venture capitalists (VCs) pay lip service to the idea of constant innovation, this isn’t actually what they do as a business model: they tend to take an innovation and then monetize it. The problem is this model doesn’t work for open source: retaining control of an open source project requires a constant stream of innovation within the source tree itself. Single innovations get attention but unless they’re followed up with another innovation, they tend to give the impression your source tree is stagnating, encouraging forks. However, the most useful property of open source is that by sharing a project and encouraging contributions, you can obtain a constant stream of innovation from a well managed community. Once you have a constant stream of innovation to show, forking the project becomes much harder, even for a cloud service provider with hundreds of developers, because they must show they can match the innovation stream in the public tree. Add to that Standardization which in open source simply means getting your project adopted for use by multiple consumers (say two different clouds, or a range of industry). Further, if the project is largely run by a single entity and properly managed, seeing the incoming innovations allows you to recruit the best innovators, thus giving you direct ownership of most of the innovation stream. In the early days, you make money simply by offering user connection services as in Business Model One, but the ultimate goal is likely acquisition for the talent possesed, which is a standard VC exit strategy.

All of this points to the hypothesis that the current VC model is wrong. Instead of investing in people with the ideas, you should be investing in people who can attract and lead others with ideas

Other Business Models

Although the models listed above have proven successful over time, they’re by no means the only possible ones. As the space of potential business models gets explored, it could turn out they’re not even the best ones, meaning the potential innovation a savvy business executive might bring to open source is newer and better business models.

Conclusions

Business models are optional extras with open source and just because you have a successful open source project does not mean you’ll have an equally successful business model unless you put sufficient thought into constructing and maintaining it. Thus a successful open source start up requires three elements: A sound business model, or someone who can evolve one, a solid community leader and manager and someone with technical ability in the problem space.

If you like working in Open Source as a contributor, you don’t necessarily have to have a business model at all and you can often simply rely on recognition leading to opportunities that provide sufficient remuneration.

Although there are several well known business models for exploiting open source, there’s no reason you can’t create your own different one but remember: a successful open source project in no way guarantees a successful business model.

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