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The Commercialization of Open Source

Is VC investment a good thing for open source?

We've all heard the news: JBoss has received $10 million in funding and now it's time to sit back and mull it over. Without a doubt this infusion of capital is a signal of confidence for JBoss Group. But is this investment a good thing for open source? Not an unimportant question for those of us who have decided to use open source in our enterprise applications. If organizations are just now deciding to use open source, this announcement could cause them to rethink their decision and weigh the possibility that their choice may not be so open as it has been. We do have a few exemplars that we can draw from to help us understand what could happen. The most obvious are IBM alphaWorks, the Apache Foundation, and the various Linux vendors, some of whom have IPOed.

alphaWorks is home to a number of open source projects. We don't hear about this IBM-funded effort as much as we used to because many efforts have simply taken a back seat to Eclipse in the media. Another reason is that many of the Java projects have been donated to the Apache Jakarta project. Even so, it continues to act as an incubator while being funded by IBM.

The fact that Apache receives a significant portion of its funding and support from Collabnet is neither highly publicized nor used in marketing efforts. Apache's branding has developed organically. Aside from the number of high-quality offerings (donated by IBM and others), much of the respect that Apache enjoys is due to Collabnet. Being backed by Collabnet has given businesses enough trust in the viability of Apache that they are willing to base critical business applications on Apache technology. Because of this, Apache has been a big win for Sun, IBM, O'Reilly, Oracle, Borland, and others.

What of open source projects that don't enjoy this level of support? Is JBoss a viable option for businesses without the backing of a group such as Apache or the JBoss Organization? Could Linux be where it is today without the efforts of companies such as Red Hat? What does all of this say about the future of open source projects? Will the companies that are supporting open source continue to do so once they face real pressure from investors? Will people be willing to donate their time to open source projects knowing that others will be profiting from their efforts?

There is no doubt that the JBoss project enjoys a large grass roots following. The difference between the JBoss Organization and Apache is that the JBoss founders have been much more vocal about their efforts than Apache has been. In addition to the attention that this loud chest thumping has attracted, it has also made some people nervous about the future of the JBoss project. There is no question that JBoss products will survive. This infusion of capital all but ensures a healthy future for them. The question is: What form will that future take if the principal sponsors of the project are now off trying to satisfy those who provided this capital?

It is conceivable that under the limited GPL license, future development on JBoss will occur in a totally commercialized context. Will we see two versions of JBoss: one open source and another for those who are willing to ante up licensing fees? Will documentation and support only be doled out to those who are willing to pay? Not according to Marc Fleury. Fleury has the personality and attitude that was needed to bring JBoss to this level. He seems to know when to thumb is nose at the establishment and when to pull back. As long as Fleury is in control, I expect he will keep his word and JBoss will remain as it is. The question is: How long can Fleury maintain control?

In an article published on CNet (June 2, 1999) just after Red Hat announced that it had filed for an IPO, an analyst raised the question, "If a company such as VA or Red Hat went public and made a lot of money off of Linux, what does that mean for all those people who've done a lot of work and don't necessarily make money out of it? Will they still want to contribute to Linux?" A quick survey of the Fedora (a project to build a complete OS from free software) IRC channels showed that more than 300 people were signed onto #fedora and 120 where signed onto #fedora-devel. More important, there were people engaging in dialogue while trying to advance the development of this open source project. While these numbers don't rival the thousands that participate in projects like Ant, it still appears to be a healthy vibrant community working toward a common goal.

It's unclear how many of the people who have contributed to Red Hat's success have been compensated for their efforts. The JBoss Group has made a concerted effort to compensate people who have contributed to the JBoss project. The recent hiring of Gavin King illuminates the group's efforts to continue to support Professional Open Source, that is open source software developed by professionals earning a living from the product that they are contributing to. Is this any different than what Sun, IBM, and others have been doing with their support of Apache Jakarta?

Only time will tell if the JBoss Group can successfully transform themselves from a group of developers working on an open source project into a viable commercial enterprise. Or if JBoss as an open source product will remain viable and not be consumed by JBoss, the commercial enterprise. If history has anything to say, they should be able to pull it off.

More Stories By Kirk Pepperdine

Kirk Pepperdine has more than 10 years of experience in OO technologies. In edition to his work in the area of performance tuning, Kirk has focused on building middleware for distributed applications.

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