Nurturing sweet open source success

Johannesburg, 02 Apr 2012
Read time 2min 50sec

Explaining open source software can be tricky. Those on the proprietary and business side of the fence find it hard to understand why anyone would want to make software for free. On the other side, open source developers visibly pale at the talk of money and profit, says Muggie van Staden, MD of Obsidian Systems.

It's an awkward relationship but one that can and does work, thanks to the professional open source provider.

Perhaps the best explanation of this complex relationship between developers not motivated by profit and businesses focused almost exclusively on profit is James Dixon's beekeeper model.

Professional Open Source Software (POSS) companies exist, says Dixon, as exchange systems between two distinct groups: the open source community, which is motivated by mutual contribution and community, and the business marketplace, which is motivated by economic reward.

In Dixon's model, the POSS companies are the beekeepers. To their one side are the bees, in this case the open source community, and on the other are the customers willing to pay for the product of the bees. The customers don't care how the honey is created, and they don't want to have to own and look after their own beehives in order to get the honey. They just want their jar of honey for their morning toast.

On the other side, the bees don't care about the customers. They have their own reasons for creating honey and they're not about to package the honey themselves and sell it to customers.

The beekeeper is therefore the conduit through which the honey flows. He looks after the hives and makes sure the bees are happy and healthy. He also collects the honey, bottles it, and sells it to customers.

The comparisons with the open source ecosystem are immediately apparent: Like the bees, the open source developers create software that meets their own needs. They do this mostly without thought for what potential customers might want.

The customers, for their part, are busy doing business and they need IT systems and applications that help them sell more of their products and do it more efficiently. They're not in the business of creating software so have no interest in writing the code themselves.

Businesses requiring IT support and services pay the POSS company for those. The POSS company then uses that revenue to fund engineers to work on the open source project. With the added resources, the open source project grows and attracts a community, which itself contributes to the project by improving functionality, the design, the quality and language translations of the software. This in turn makes the software more appealing to paying customers.

Ultimately, all three parties benefit from the arrangement, says Dixon. The community gains more resources than a “pure” open source project. Paying customers gain a higher-quality software at a better price. The POSS company grows its market share and revenue by servicing both sides of the equation.

More information on James Dixon's beekeeper model of professional open source software can be found on the Pentaho wiki.

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