Archive for July, 2010

About contributions, Canonical and adopters

It is always strange to see the savage infighting that sometimes happens in the free and open source world – sometimes, like red in front of a bull, the net suddenly lights their flame-throwers and decides to roast someone. Today’s target is Canonical, makers of the Ubuntu distribution, accused of being leeches and “stealing” from the open source communities, giving little or nothing back, and profiting from that. The issue emerged from the publication of the Gnome census, where it emerged that Canonical As Sam Varghese writes, “Canonical derives the base for Ubuntu from the Debian project. It takes liberally from many free and open source software projects to produce a distribution.  While this distribution is available for free download, Canonical is also basing a business on it, and developing ways and means of making money off Ubuntu.” (which is, probably, a crime). He wrote something similar before, and  Greg DeKoenigsberg has an even more vitriolic argument in his post “Red Hat, 16%. Canonical, 1%”, that happily buries under the ground Canonical, Ubuntu and most Ubuntu fanboys.

Well, you’re all wrong.

Not because the percentages are wrong (but nearly useless, as Canonical is relatively recent and RedHat is not, because Gnome is only one of the projects and there are many others, etc.) but because they measure too little. I already wrote in the past about the enormous effort that goes to non-code contributions, and that no-one measures (as for OpenOffice, there are more contributors in non-code parts than in code); there is also a substantial effort in creating a product out of contributions. And Ubuntu certainly invested in product engineering, marketing, even engineering (less than Red Hat? So what? Large IT consulting companies are getting paid millions for open source-based systems, and I never saw a contribution at all). When Matt Asay claims that bringing Ubuntu to million of people is a contribution, he is claiming an absolute truth; every time Canonical manages to bring a press release out it is making a huge contribution. Maybe less code than others, but this is not a beauty contest – this is a cooperative effort for building a better future, not a race to see who is the nicest or worked harder. It is true that Canonical (I hope) profits from OSS: well, it is one of the most important thing for OSS, as it demonstrates that OSS is sustainable, that people can live off OSS services and products, all the while improving our world. I repeat: maybe someone at Red Hat is not happy of the visibility of Canonical, given all the contributions they do? I am sorry – and I am quite happy to show at all my talks that Red Hat is an incredibly good and well-managed company, that has open sourced all the proprietary products it acquired – and invests an incredible amount of effort in engineering in the open. I like them a lot (no, I don’t work for them, and never did use one of their services), but I like Canonical as well, because they are investing heavily in the desktop market, a market that is not the focus of Red Hat any more and that I believe is quite important.

This is not a contest. We should be happy for every, small, large, strange or different contributions that we receive. Should it be more? Maybe. But don’t overlook all those things that are being done, some of them outside of pure code. Because, as I wrote in the past, there is much more than code in an OSS project.

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The basis of OSS business models: property and efficiency

It is now time to write the closing part of our long multi-part look at open source business models. After all the discussion on how to look at the various parts of a model and how to improve it, I will try to summarize a bit on how to look at an OSS business model, and what implications can be made from a specific choice (for once, without mentioning open core).

The basic idea behind business models is quite simple: I have something or can do something – the “value proposition” – and it is more economical to pay me to do or get this “something” instead of doing it yourself (sometimes it may even be impossible to find alternatives, as in natural or man-made monopolies, so the idea of doing it myself may not be applicable)

There are two possible sources for the value: a property (something that can be transferred) and efficiency (something that is inherent in what the company do, and how they do it). With Open Source, usually “property” is non-exclusive (with the exception of Open Core, where part of the code is not open at all). Other examples of property are trademarks, patents, licenses… anything that may be transferred to another entity through a contract or legal transaction.

Efficiency is the ability to perform an action with a lower cost (both tangible and intangible), and is something that follows the specialization in a work area or appears thanks to a new technology. Examples of the first are simply the decrease in time necessary to perform an action when you increase your expertise in it; the first time you install a complex system may require lots of effort, and this effort is reduced the more you experience the tasks necessary to perform the installation itself.

Examples of the second may be the introduction of a tool that simplifies the process (for example, through image cloning) and it introduces a huge discontinuity, a “jump” in the graph of efficiency versus time.

These two aspects are the basis of all the business models that we have analysed in the past; it is possible to show that all of them fall in a continuum between properties and efficiency:

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Among the results of our past research project, one thing that we found is that property-based projects tend to have lower contributions from the outside, because it requires a legal transaction to become part of the company’s properties; think for example at dual licensing: to become part of the product source code, an external contributor needs to sign off his rights to the code, to allow the company to sell the enterprise version alongside the open one.

On the other hand, right-handed models based purely on efficiency tends to have higher contributions and visibility, but lower monetization rates. As I wrote many times, there is no ideal business model, but a spectrum of possible models, and companies should adapt themselves to changing market conditions and adapt their model as well. Some companies start as pure efficiency based, and build an internal property with time; some others may start as property based, and move to the other side to increase contributions and reducing the engineering effort (or enlarging the user base, to create alternative ways of monetizing users).

This is the last post in our little mini-serie on OSS business models; I hope that my archetypal three readers will have enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing them. Of course, I will be happy to read and respond to any comment – even negative ones.

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The relationship between Open Core, dual licensing and contributions

Open Core continues to receive substantial bashing, both after the announcement of the new SugarCRM 6 and after the recent OpenStack intitiative. Sugar introduces a new interface that is not available in the open source edition (they are not the first in this: actually, Open-Xchange did it before them, making the javascript code for the new AJAX interface not usable for commercial activities), but despite this they claim “We are an open source company” In the OpenStack announcement, The Register reports that it was not possible for NASA to introduce the changes to Eucalyptus because that would have undermined the capability of the company to make users pay for the enterprise edition. I already wrote in the past that Open Core is not evil per se, but that it does introduce difficulties in encouraging external participation; both because there is a very thin line in feature selection between the community and enterprise edition, and because open core naturally hampers participation. I had some readers asking me why, and I will respond with a subset of my LinuxTag slides:

Screenshot-linuxtag-daffara.odp - OpenOffice.org Impress

Open core is usually built by a set of internal open source components held together by a dual-licensed wrapper, plus proprietary modules on the outside. One of the best examples of this is Zimbra (an excellent product on its own) but MySQL in recent editions can be included in the same group. As discussed in previous posts, dual licensing hampers contributions because it requires an explicit agreement on ceding rights to the company that employs it, in order to be able to relicense it for the proprietary edition. This means that Open Core companies, in itself, will have an easier time in monetizing their software, but will receive much less contributions in exchange. As I wrote before, it is simply not possible to get something like Linux or Apache with Open Core.

Again: open core is not bad per se (but I would have been more cautious in calling Sugar “an open source company”, for whatever definition you have of that). But it is a tradeoff: monetization versus contributions. And, my bets are on contributions, as OpenStack demonstrates – you need leverage and external resources to go beyond what a single company can do.

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The new EveryDesk and EveryDesk/MED health care desktops

We have finally released the new version of the linux-on-USB EveryDesk system, both in the plain version and the Medical release, that includes an IHE certified DICOM medical image browser, a complete R-based statistical environment and OpenOffice enhanced with a complete medical dictionary. The new version is faster, should be more compatible with older hardware, and in general was found by our beta testers to be fairly complete.

Its main appeal is that it can be tested without any installation: just download the image, copy it on the key and try. It boots fast, it is totally modifiable, provides local applications, Prism for web-apps, Chromium and several remote computing applications like the VMware View client, clients for IBM mini and mainframes, a full Java environment for Citrix, and much more.

The medical version still misses the final DICOM certification (you will see in the startup splash screen that it does have no CE marking), we are working towards the final release that will be certified and significantly improved. The R environment is also missing some modules specific to bioengineering, that were not ready in time for release; we expect to have a beta-2 version ready for the mid of august.

We have also a completely new website: http://www.everydesk.org where we added a substantial amount of material, and will be used to publish the training videos that we are preparing to help companies in adopting the desktop for their own internal use.

We have introduced a new policy: we offer unlimited and free support and helpdesk services for all users, commercial or not. To receive private answers we only as for an introductory email that provides details of the institution, contact points and the actual or expected number of EveryDesk installations. We will provide a separate customer ID, and it will be used for issue tracking. Large scale customers can request a private portal, with issue and bug tracking, device management and group update as a separate commercial option.

We are welcoming health care institutions that are interested in trying EveryDesk/MED, especially from developing countries; let us know what additional application may be of interest to be added to the default platform.

For more information: http://www.everydesk.org

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An on-vacation post on Open core

[Note: since I am writing this from a sunny beach, with a cell phone, I will not be able to add more than a few links to external pages. Will add the rest of them at my return, after the 12th of July]

It seems that Open Core continues to be the source of significant debate; I wrote quite a few posts in the past, and Open Core was one of our researched business models (for more details, see my LinuxTag presentation on business models). I would like to enter again the debate with a few short comments on my own:

  • Companies using OC are not the devil, and should not be called names because of their choice of business model. Actually, there are no good and bad business models - only models that work, and those that do not. So, if open core works for a company, that’s a good thing.
  • Open core models are somehow confusing for adopters. As a consultant for more than 100 companies and public administrations, actually explaining open core is one of my most common tasks. And the marketing message of companies is confusing: if you go to the Zimbra webpage (no offence against Zimbra, which is a company/product I love and use as example of good practice) you see the phrase “Zimbra – the leader in open source email and collaboration”, not “Zimbra – the leader in open source and proprietary email” (not that the phrase would win any context :-) ) and the same for all the other open core companies. This is not, in my opinion, such a negative point if the website explains the difference between versions in a simple way, as for example both Zimbra and Alfresco do.
  • It is true that open core models tend to have a higher revenue than non-OC models. It is also true that OC does have an intrinsic limited number of contributions from outside (as we found in FLOSSMETRICS analysing a few hundreds packages), and as can be found in the mentioned LinuxTag presentation. So, you may have higher monetization ratio, but you basically forfeit external contributions. The CEO should decide what is more important – so the decision is not “ethical”, but practical and based on economics. You will never get the kind of participation that Linux, Apache and Eclipse do have in an Open Core model. If that is ok for you – that’s great.
  • The fact that most VC are funding open core companies is just a data point. Lots of open source companies do well without VC funding.
  • It is true that lots of people claims that “pure” open source models are not sustainable. Even my friend Erwin Tenhumberg (that is quite knowledgeable, expert and incredibly nice on its own) had a slide in this sense in his LinuxTag presentation; and you can find lots of comments like that in many publication (something like “the majority of OSS companies adopt the so called mixed model”, despite this being actually false, as we found in our survey of OSS companies). The point, like said before, is that the important thing is not that there is a superior model, but that for every company, every market there is an optimal model – it may be OC, it may be pure services, or lots of combinations of our 11 building blocks. The optimal model changes with time and market condition, and what is appropriate now may be wrong tomorrow.
  • No open source model can achieve the kind of profit margins of proprietary companies. So, if you want to make your OSS company, remember this basic fact. If you want the kind of profit margins of Microsoft or Oracle, forget it.

So, to end this post, there are three critical points: whether the model is clear for the adopter (and this should be a given, and actually nowadays I would say that most companies are absolutely honest and clear on this), whether the software in its open source edition provides sufficient functionality to be useful to a wide range of adopters (and this is a fine line to walk, and requires constant adaptation) and whether the increased monetization compensates for the lack of external contributions, that can substantially increase the value of the code base (you are trading cash for code and engineering, in a sense).

Can we put this to rest? End the name calling, be friends, and call all of us family? Especially since right now, under the sun of Fuerteventura where I am writing this, it seems difficult to fight :-)

[by the way: sorry for any misspelling. There is no spell checker here on this small screen...]

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On WebM, H264, and FFmpeg implementation

 I was recently reminded by Gregory Maxwell of Xiph about the new, non-Google implementation of VP8 done within the context of FFmpeg, and many commenters on Slashdot observed that the fact that the implementation shares lots of code with the H264 part is further demonstration that VP8 is infriging on MPEG-LA held patents.

Actually, there is nothing in the implementation that suggests this, only the fact that some underlying alogrithms are similar (but not identical). For example, the entropy coder is quite similar, and it certainly helps to reuse some of the highly optimized librarties that are within FFMPEG, this is however no indication of patent infringement. What is certain, is the fact that I suspect that libVPX (Google implementation) will remain the “official” one, because there is no guarantee that in the alternative implementation the current IPR safeguards and efforts to avoid existing patents will be done properly. In fact, some of the obvious “missing optimizations” both in the decoder and encoder are clearly done to avoid patents, and this means that Google can be reasonably sure of being safe from IPR claims for the current code drop. If a FFMPEG developer implements some optimization (especially in the encoder) that actually implements a claimed part of a current patent you can end up with a freely implemented source code that implements an IPR-covered claim, like most of FFMPEG actually.

So, to end up this brief post: the existence of a parallel implementation of libvpx is a good thing; the fact that it shares lots of code with FFMPEG is no proof of IPR infringement, but on the other hand it is probably safer to use the libvpx one from Google, as it seems that it was developed explicitly to avoid existing IPR issues.

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