On Open Source, the Services Model, and Long-Term Software Quality
Recently I got to talking open source with a friend of mine who has worked in the proprietary database market, especially at Sybase, for several years. He made a few interesting observations during the conversation. For example, we talked about open source competition in databases, and he said a few good things about MySQL, but also said that the proprietary databases often outdo MySQL "based on just a few small features, and also commitment to legacy systems that many companies have." His take on what Oracle might do with MySQL is that it might treat it as an open source on-ramp to its own proprietary databases, but that Oracle will have to "keep MySQL like WordPad"--Microsoft's text editing application, which falls far short of the features found in Microsoft Word.
When we got down to discussing business models for successful commercial open source companies, my friend especially liked the Red Hat model of providing support and services for free software, which has provided the company with substantial financial success, and also consistency. There are quite a few companies following the Red Hat model, and there are also signs appearing that that model will end up immeasurably improving important open source software applications and platforms--not just business bottom lines.
We've written extensively about the various startup companies in the commercial open source arena that are following Red Hat's successful model of providing support and services surrounding free software. A number of these companies are getting significant venture capital backing, including Acquia (provides services and a distribution for the Drupal content management system), Cloudera (provides services and a distribution for the Hadoop platform, for fast queries on clustered systems), and Eucalyptus Systems, (provides services for the Eucalyptus cloud computing platform), among other companies.
These companies focused on service and support for free software are providing a solution for the long-standing problem of lack of support, but the steady flow of profits from service and support also benefits open source platforms and applications enormously. As GigaOm notes, Doug Cutting, creator of the Hadoop platform, has left his position at Yahoo to join Cloudera. A number of other key players in the Hadoop story also work at Cloudera, and I won't be surprised to see these key players substantially advance Cloudera's own Hadoop distribution, and Hadoop itself.
Similarly, Red Hat not only moves its own open source platforms along, but it is one of the key contributors to the Linux kernel itself. What pays for that kind of effort? The company's focus on service and support for open source software pays for it.
That's why I think my conversation with my friend will come full circle in the long run. He doesn't see open source platforms as all that competitive right now, but he likes the Red Hat model. The catch is, though, that the Red Hat model focused on service and support ends being a rising tide that lifts many boats--where the quality of the software directly benefits.