Open Source Debate

Open Core – What Is Acceptable?

Jessica Thornsby

Bloggers debate how mixed open source and proprietary software companies should market themselves.

Henrik Ingo is the latest in a string of bloggers debating the
merits and evils of Open Core, but he takes this debate one step
further and asks ‘if Open Core is unacceptable, then what is

Firstly, Ingo states that if a vendor sells primarily closed
software, but markets themselves as an open source vendor, it is
unacceptable. ‘True’ open source companies have put time, effort
and money into promoting open source, turning it into a well-known
and respected term. In Ingo’s opinion, it is unfair to capitalise
on all this hard work, or to exploit well-meaning community members
who may inadvertently contribute to closed-source software, which
they believe to be open source.

Open Core further muddies the waters, because the mixture of
open source and closed software the label describes isn’t
particularly uncommon. Brian Prentice drew attention to this
at his blog, stating that “the idea that a
functionally complete, proprietary solution is somehow unique
because it was built atop an open source base fails to recognize
the fact that many proprietary solutions are being built using open
source components.” In fact, Google, IBM and Microsoft all use
elements of open source software in their products. Logically then,
they could claim to follow an Open Core business model, or to be an
‘Open Source Company,’ to use another term for dual licensing.
Again, the end result is that customers who are not already
familiar with open source, receive a confused message that ‘open
source’ can sometimes equal proprietary software. “If the vendor
markets his open core product as open source, it adds up to deceit
and it waters down the open source brand in general,” Ingo

Ian Skerrett also recently called for an end to the term ‘Open Source
Company,’ using the same argument: that this label was often used
by primarily closed source companies leveraging the open source
reputation for financial gain.

So, what is the solution? Ingo proposes that if a product
contains both open source and proprietary components, it should be
called closed source. Ideally, he would like to see open source and
closed components kept strictly separate, with
clearly-distinguished differences in branding and product name. He
gives an example: Apache is open source, but not everything
labelled ‘MySQL’ is, in fact, open source. Apache code may wind up
in closed software (IBM’s Websphere contains Apache code,) but it
is never called an Apache product.

Furthermore, Ingo advises that the three main Linux
distributions – Red Hat, Ubuntu and Debian – should block open core
brands. He already sees some evidence of this; Red Hat has been
careful to keep its distribution free from closed source kernel
modules, and Debian renamed ‘Mozilla Firefox’ to ‘Firefox’ as a
workaround for Mozilla’s trademark policies.

Finally, he sees educating companies about open source and Open
Core, as an important area. He believes that some companies may not
even be aware that their business doesn’t qualify as ‘true’ open
source, they might simply be following the example set by MySQL and
other prominent mixed open and closed software providers. “Once
people know about this issue, it will already have some effect as
open core vendors need to reconsider if the closed source software
is so valuable to them that it offsets the loss of community
goodwill,” he concludes.

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