Open Source as a differentiator?

What is an “open source company”? What is the real differentiation element introduced by Open Source? These and more questions were introduced by a great post by Matthew Aslett (if you don’t follow him, go and follow now. I’ll wait. Yes, do it. You will thank me later.), called “The decline of open source as an identifying differentiator“. It is an excellent analysis of how companies mostly stopped using the term “open source” in their marketing materials, and has a follow up (here) that provides a summary of the main responses by other analysts and observers.

The post raises several interesting points, and in my opinion provides a great basis for a more general discussion: what is the difference introduced by open source? Is there a difference at all?

Let’s start with an observation of the obvious: the use of open source to build software is now so widespread that it is not a differentiating element anymore. There goes the various “built on open source components” of some companies – practically all companies are using open source inside. It’s simply not a difference. So, let’s start with what is the real differential between OSS and proprietary:

The licensing. An open license may introduce a difference for the adopter. This means that if such a differential is used by the company, it must provide a value that derives from the intrinsic property of open source as a legal framework. For example, independence from supplier (at least, theoretically…) both in case of provider change, and independence in terms of adding or integrating additional components, even if the company is in disagreement.

The development model. The collaborative development model is not a certainty – it arises only when there is a clear infrastructure for participation. When it does happen, it is comparatively much faster and more efficient than the proprietary and closed model. For this to be a real differentiator, the company must engage in an open development model, and this is actually happening only in a very small number of cases.

In general, the majority of companies that we surveyed in FLOSSMETRICS have now a limited degree of differentiation when compared to their peers, and even as a “signaling” open source is now no more interesting than other IT terms that entered the mainstream (we can discuss further whether “cloud” will disappear in the background as well..) Of the companies we surveyed, I would say that those that we marked originally as “specialists” are the ones more apt to still use “open source” as a differentiating term, with “open core” ones the least (since they don’t reap the advantages of a distributed development model, neither the adopter reaps the advantages of the open source licensing). A potential difference may arise for development tools or infrastructures, where open source is a near necessity; in this case, the natural expectation will be for the platform to be open – thus not a differentiating element any more.

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