Making money from open source: Still an issue

Novell official notes it can be difficult to generate revenues via new give-it-away software paradigm

Several years after open source began to take the world by storm, the question of how to make money in the genre still remains an issue, with a prominent Novell official Wednesday advising caution for those considering a move to open source.

The official, Novell Vice President Miguel de Icaza, actually heads up Novell's open source Mono project, which provides a version of the Microsoft .Net Framework for use on non-Windows platforms such as Linux.

[ See InfoWorld's report on Microsoft's latest Silverlight rich Internet application technology plans, revealed at the PDC this week. ]

"If your livelihood depends on the product that you're selling, until you can figure how you're going to make money on that thing, I say, keep it proprietary," de Icaza said.

There is no rush to go open source, he said. "In my experience, making a successful open source business has been incredibly difficult," de Icaza said. He was among panelists and audience members who pondered the question of how to make money in open source in a session entitled, "Is Open Source Old News?" at the Microsoft PDC (Professional Developers Conference) in Los Angeles.

De Icaza's remarks were in response to an audience member, independent consultant Giovanni Bassi, who raised the question of making money via open source. His clients, he said, do not have anything to sell if they put their software into open source.

"I hear about selling support instead of selling software," Bassi said. But his clients "don't buy" this notion, he said.

Young developers without a lot of obligations can more easily consider doing open source projects, de Icaza said. But someone with a family and tuition to pay has to tread carefully when taking a technology to the open source route.

"You need to take those steps carefully in my opinion. And support, by the way, is a horrible business," said de Icaza, who added he would rather be writing code than taking support calls. Afterward, he did acknowledge services as an option for monetization of open source technology.

"I want to be writing code, and I want to be paid to write code," said de Icaza. Making money via open source is a "challenge," he said. But not every project will be able to be commercially sold, he added.

Open sourcing can work if a usage license is structured with limitations on commercial use, such as what MySQL did with its open source database. (MySQL  generated revenues by selling support subscriptions.) Open source also can be an option if it presents a technical advantage, such as what Google did with its GPS data, de Icaza said.

While Mono is open source like the related Novell Moonlight project, Novell last week introduced a commercial product, Mono Tools for Visual Studio, which leverages Mono.

Also during the panel session, Sara Ford, program manager for Microsoft's site for open source projects, noted she had a learning curve regarding open source as a Microsoft employee.

"I'm born and raised Microsoft. It's an interesting place," to learn open source, Ford said.  At CodePlex, those in charge were at first unaware they could reject project contributions. CodePlex now hosts 12,400 projects.

Ford also cited the issue of "drive-by contributors," who contribute some code to a project and then quickly disappear. "[For] the project owners, it becomes a burden," since they do not know the contributor or how to contact them," said Ford.

Also during the session, de Icaza downplayed concerns about Oracle owning Java via its planned acquisition of Java founder Sun Microsystems.

"It doesn't matter," de Icaza said. Java is not like .Net, which is specifically owned by Microsoft, he said.

"Sun has stated that all these patents are free for anyone to use," and Java technology is available under the GNU General Public License, de Icaza added.

Java is now "the property of the human race," said de Icaza. "It belongs to everyone."

In another Microsoft-related open source development, the Microsoft-backed CodePlex Foundation, which is separate from the CodePlex project site but also pertains to open source projects, announced this week that it has formed its first foundation project  gallery.

The foundation's ASP.Net Open Source Gallery was unveiled with the Microsoft-developed ASP.Net Ajax Library project serving as the first project in the gallery. The ASP.Net Ajax Library consolidates ASP.Net Ajax and the Ajax Control Toolkit into a single open source project, the foundation said. The toolkit and AJAX libraries make it easy for developers to use the AJAX programming model in Web sites and applications, according to the foundation.

The ASP.Net Ajax Library project will be released under a BSD license.

This story, "Making money from open source: Still an issue," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in open source at

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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