Commercial open source is more than old stuff for free

Alfresco CTO John Newton on balancing the commercial and community aspects of being an open source company

February saw open source turn 20 years old. Or the OSI definition at least. According to the OSI, the term was coined in Palo Alto by nanotechnologist Christine Peterson during a meeting on February 3, 1998, shortly after the announcement of the release of Netscape’s source code.

In those 20 years, a lot has changed. Major technology shifts are now driven by open aource technologies: big data (Hadoop, Spark), AI (TensorFlow, Caffe), and containers (Docker, Kubernetes) are all open source projects. Massive companies including Google, Facebook, and even Lyft regularly release open source tools for the world to use. Microsoft—a company that once described Linux as a cancer—now embraces the concept. And commercial open source is not just a niche idea operated at the fringes of the technology landscape but a common and successful business model for companies to adopt.

One such organization is Alfresco Software. Founded in 2005, the San Mateo, Calif.-headquartered enterprise content management (ECM) and business process management (BPM) company has spent the last 13 years balancing commercial requirements with keeping its open source-loving community happy. (Recenty, private equity firm THL announced it was acquiring Alfresco.)

“Patents and intellectual property rights are not necessarily the best way to protect your leadership. The best way to protect your leadership is [to stay ahead of] the curve, to constantly innovate,” says Alfresco founder and CTO John Newton. “And it actually ends up that the more you put it out [to the community], the faster you’ll innovate and the more you add stuff [back onto the product]. And it’s not always because other people are contributing, but because they’re looking at what you’re doing and are more likely to comment on it. So, it’s just a very powerful innovation engine.”

Open source is more than just old stuff for free

Commercial open source usually comes in three flavours: Support and services around an open source technology (à la Red Hat), a freemium model offering incremental paid upgrades as you need them, or offering a free standalone “Community” product as a lure and then offer a separate commercial “Enterprise” edition with more features and add-ons.

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