3. Don't assume open source makes you the Good Guy in customers' eyes
Like it or not, confusion about the nature of open source licenses and what they mean for customers remains a persistent problem. Much of this can be attributed to longtime campaigns by proprietary software vendors aimed at discrediting the open source model. Still, legitimate gotchas do come up. For example, just last month the developer of Thesis, a commercial theme for WordPress, was forced to alter its licensing model when the WordPress developers claimed its software violated the GPL. And according to the Free Software Foundation's Bradley Kuhn, "there are so many GPL violations that I might easily be able to go on finding one per day for two years straight."
Because of this, business customers in particular tend to be wary of open source licensing. To them, a software license is a contract, something they can't afford to fall afoul of. That doesn't mean they will necessarily avoid open source projects -- very few businesses are truly so strict. But rather than being seen as a hero for software freedom in customers' eyes, adopting an open source model means you'll have to become an active evangelist for open source if you want to win customers over from proprietary alternatives. If you're not clear in your messaging, you could find yourself forced into a defensive position.
4. Don't assume open source will lead to higher-quality software
One of the greatest benefits touted by open source advocates is that access to source code allows the entire market to analyze software for bugs, leading to higher-quality software. "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow," as the saying goes. But from a commercial vendor's perspective, there are two problems with this theory. The first is that, as mentioned earlier, most of your customers won't be looking at your source code at all. The second is that Microsoft has a lot of eyeballs, too -- and its eyeballs get paid. Don't assume that even a large installed base will give you an immediate advantage.
Customers are more likely to participate in open source communities than they are to peruse the source code, but this is no guarantee that your product will reflect your customers' needs, either. Don't assume your community-building activities will be a substitute for sound market research. Proprietary software vendors -- particularly those with deep pockets, like Microsoft -- can afford to conduct user experience tests and gather feedback from top customers proactively. If you're hoping to use community to avoid doing the same, realize that you're in a position of weakness.
5. Don't assume open source will lower development costs
Many customers open their source code in the hopes that they'll be able to draw valuable contributions from their user base, but the reality for most commercial open source vendors is pretty bleak. Judging by the Eclipse Community Survey, which polled some 1,700 users of the Eclipse IDE, the number of corporations who contribute back to open source projects is declining. Open source projects backed by a single vendor can expect the majority of their code commits to come from in-house developers.
What this means, in a nutshell, is that commercial open source vendors must compete in the same playing field as every other developer. Most of the hard work of building their products will be by the sweat of their own brows. Does the open source model offer advantages? Yes, in some cases. But developers considering open source should be careful not to delude themselves into thinking open source offers them more than it does.
This article, "Is open source right for your software business?," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com.