Is open source right for your software business?

Contrary to assumptions, commercial open source vendors have few real advantages in a tough software market

As a software developer, should you consider the open source model for your products? When Richard Stallman first launched the Free Software movement in 1983, it was indeed a revolutionary concept in software development and distribution. But today's concept of commercial open source is not as different from the traditional software sales model as some developers assume, and companies that adopt this model are likely to run into many of the same grim realities. Before you leap into a commercial open source model for your products, be sure to check your assumptions:

1. Don't assume access to source code adds value for the customer
Programming languages, IDEs, databases, and other developer-oriented software products are natural choices for the open source model because the audience for these products is highly knowledgeable and deeply engaged in the software development process. These customers will want to know what's going on under the hood of the software they buy. For other kinds of software, however -- including consumer GUI software, utilities, games, and business applications -- few customers will ever so much as peek at the source code. Most won't even have the expertise to know where to begin.

[ InfoWorld's Paul Venezia recently detailed six open source projects you should be using. | Keep up on the latest open source thinking with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Sources newsletter and on software development with InfoWorld's Developer World newsletter. ]

These customers will be evaluating your software more or less the same way that they do any other software. They'll want a pitch that's based on features, ease of use, ease of installation, and pricing. And watch out for that last part, because for many customers, "open source" still means "you can have it for free." Commercial open source companies need to be very clear about how they expect to be paid for their efforts, or else their marketing around their open source model can seem like a bait-and-switch to customers who care about cost but have no use for source code.

2. Don't assume your open source version will attract customers to the commercial version
A lot of developers assume open source is a great way to get their foot in the door. They offer a "light" model of their product that can be downloaded for free under an open source license, along with a commercial version that offers substantially improved features under a proprietary commercial license. They assume customers will try out the free version for a while, then upgrade to the commercial version when they outgrow the free version's limitations.

That might be fine if you're marketing your product to individual users, but that's seldom a viable business strategy. Business customers, on the other hand, seldom acquire software in such a tentative fashion. "Businesses don't blindly jump into a free open source offering and then upgrade to a full-cost, proprietary product like it was some stimulus-response behavior," writes Gartner research VP Brian Prentice. "From my experience they assess these products, from day one, based on the full version."

In other words, the customers you care about will be evaluating you the same as any other commercial vendor from the get-go. But if potential customers do download your stripped-down open source version, their first impression will be of an unpolished, feature-limited product that's not suitable for the commercial market.

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