Open source: Less profit, more fun

It's a bad time to be an open source startup trying to survive on support revenue -- but it's a great time for open innovation

Open source ain't what it used to be. It's both more and less.

On the "more" side of the equation, let's start with a big number: 19,000. According to Black Duck Software, that's the approximate number of open source projects started in 2009. As Peter Vescuso of Black Duck told me, "While the economy and IT budgets were declining, the open source community was busy coding."

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At the same time, "the tag 'open source' is no longer cool, nor is it a differentiator in itself," says Michael Skok of North Bridge Venture Partners. Instead, Skok says, the emphasis is on real ROI and payback, which has had the effect of making open source a "mainstream, reliable, de facto part of the landscape."

So if open source has gone from show horse to workhorse, what are all those developers working on? Certainly a diminished percentage work for healthy open source software vendors, where the old-fashioned business model -- give away the code and make money on support -- isn't doing so hot. "The vendors who are scaling have more ways of making money," says Skok, such as the extensive professional services and consulting offered by Red Hat.

But the real open source explosion, says Black Duck CEO Tim Yeaton, is in enterprise app dev. Rather than code from scratch, enterprise developers are collaborating across company boundaries to develop components that can be shared under open licenses. "They're co-mingling third-party open source code with their own development," Yeaton says. Black Duck estimates that in the United States alone, the potential to offset enterprise app dev spending through the use of open source code amounts to $17 billion.

Skok dubs this use of open source "entersource," which he sees chiefly as a means for collaborative development. "Very few of these projects will reach the critical mass required to create a company," he observes, adding that, "a good product doesn't make a good open source project." In fact, he says, it's the reverse: You need a community first -- and then a project to serve that community.

Obviously, community around mobile is big enough to foster all kinds of projects; Black Duck counted 224 new projects for Android alone in 2009. I was surprised to learn, however, that the health care vertical has a grand total of 800 active projects. And government is embracing open source to an unprecedented degree, to the point where some see open source as essential to open government.

If you ask me, though, analytics has become one of the most exciting open source areas of all. This January, InfoWorld gave Apache Hadoop a Technology of the Year Award, because it opens the possibility of running huge analytics calculations with petabytes of data on commodity hardware. With Hadoop and open source NoSQL databases that vastly reduce processing times, we are on the brink of something game changing, where analytics that once required highly specialized knowledge -- plus expensive hardware and software -- will become available to a much wider range of knowledge workers.

Very likely, much of that processing will occur in the cloud, offered as a service to those who don't need to run such monster calculations 24/7. In fact, the cloud itself has become entangled with open source in two ways. First, multitenanted open source stacks have become the default software underlying SaaS (software as a service) offerings. And second, the open APIs offered by the likes of Google, Amazon, et al. are now considered by many to be open source. That seems like a bit of a stretch to me (Google Maps API, open source?), but many in the industry seem to accept this redefinition.

So there you have it: The bottom has dropped out of venture funding and many open source software companies are struggling, yet open source is proliferating to a degree no one would have believed a few years ago -- especially when you take into account the major open source offerings of IBM, Oracle, and yes, even Microsoft.

This article, "Open source: Less profit, more fun," originally appeared at Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog and follow the latest developments in open source at