Articles / Selling Your Soul

Selling Your Soul

Today, we offer an editorial from Bodo Bauer, who writes: "The ethics of OSS development have been on my mind for a while. I never really found an answer, and talking to coworkers brought up the fact that they are having similar issues. That's why I put my thoughts together in this little essay about OSS developers in today's business world." [Note: this editorial has also appeared on advogato.com.]

Open Source and Business: Where do you draw the line?

A lot has been written about Open Source and business; in recent years, quite a few companies have been founded on Open Source principles. One point that has yet to be addressed is the loss of idealism that threatens the movement's original spirit.

Having been involved with Open Source for the last seven years and having worked for companies that claim to create Open Source products has given me an inside view of this development. While the GNU/Linux hype that we've seen has made it easy to acquire resources for Open Source projects, some of the companies that were created from this hype are now in a precarious position as investors are demanding to see revenue and profit and the Open Source aspect of the company is pushed into the background.

As a software engineer who strongly believes in the freedom the GPL gives us, and as a big fan of Open Source software, I find myself in a position where I must question my involvement, and consider where to draw the line when my company makes a transition to closed source software development.

The software company

Let's look at several models that seem to have emerged in the last couple of years. Here are fictional examples that illustrate how companies that used solely Open Source business models have drifted into the proprietary space.

Our first example: imagine joining a company that promises you that all the software they develop will eventually be Open Source. Maybe not right away, but after a period of time, so the company keeps its technological advantage. After this time, the code will be given to the community. Later, the company begins to acquire other companies, and closed source applications come into the picture. The marketplace begins to change, investors begin to get anxious, and the company decides to refine the business model. It decides to prioritize profit at the expense of its Open Source strategy: nothing will be open sourced unless it's enforced by inherited licenses or it maximizes profit. What does this mean for individuals working for the company? Is this still an Open Source company? Does it count if the company supports Open Source projects by giving resources to Open Source groups and development efforts, even if it's just to make sure the Open Source foundation used for proprietary applications stays strong? Does it matter which projects you work on? Are the engineers working on Open Source projects "The Good", those working on proprietary code "The Bad", and the manager "The Ugly"?

The consulting business

Another example is a company that specializes in consulting by selling professional services around the GNU/Linux operating system. After a while, management discovers that there is more money to be made in supporting not only Open Source systems like GNU/Linux or FreeBSD, but in other Unix systems and the whole range of Microsoft systems. The company works not to replace those systems, but to integrate them all. They request that their employees learn to support those systems by getting an MCSE or similar certification. Is this tolerable for an Open Source Engineer, or is it time to look for another position?

The Internet Service Provider

Imagine a company that has a partial client/server model. The company intends to make both parts available as GPLed software. As the development progresses, the company changes the model, and instead of giving the server away, they decide to make it proprietary and freely distribute the client as Open Source software. The original idea was to acquire a huge install base by including the software in popular GNU/Linux distributions, and to offer the service the server provides on the local site. Their model also makes it so their server is the only one the client can connect to. Clearly, you're more likely to maximize profit by providing an exclusive service than by betting on customer loyalty. But can this be called an Open Source business model?

I don't have answers to these questions, which is why I wrote this essay. I see more and more companies drifting in this direction. It seems that most Open Source business models haven't matched the expectations investors and management had a year ago. Now that the hype is gone, the Dollar rules again and business models are about to be adjusted. How do you stay honest in this new paradigm, and is it important to do so? Maybe I'm just nuts and I should be happy to get paid for working with GNU/Linux at all.


Bodo Bauer <bb@bb-zone.com> is Principal Software Engineer for TurboLinux. In this position, he is responsible for the TurboLinux Workstation and Server distributions. He manages the development teams for these products. Prior to this, he was chief architect of the Zenguin Installer and co-founder of Zenguin, Inc. Bodo is a well-known SuSE Linux developer, technical manager, and Linux spokesperson in North America and Europe. Bodo's work with SuSE spans over five years, with two years in the Bay Area and three years in Germany (he was hired as SuSE's third employee in 1994). Bodo played a key role in developing the SuSE Linux distribution, related software applications, and SuSE Germany's highly successful corporate consulting program. Bodo has acted as a consultant and technical advisor to such companies as Siemens, Informix, and Oracle.


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Recent comments

26 Jun 2000 18:11 Avatar scann

What if open source principals were applied to commercial product?
What would you have?
1. Source code included with product;
2. Inexpensive product;
3. Collaborative development with community and developers.

I think the result may be even have some advantages:
4. Support organization;
5. income to pay for full time developers;
6. Possibly greater innovation.

The company I work for - www.javacorporate.com offers several open source projects - especially at the foundation layer; but they also offer a commercial source model on other products. The reason is that unfortunately many developers download the open source but few as a percentage contribute back to the community; and our experience is the number of people that buy premium support cannot support full-time developers. We feel long term without the commercial source projects - innovation on our open source projects would be compromised without our fulltime developers who are leaders in the development and who support and encourage the community developers.

14 Jun 2000 16:05 Avatar erickson71

Some problematic aspects of Free &amp; Open Source
Open Source Software is wonderful for consumers of the software
for many reasons most of us are aware of.. but there might be a few
problems on the producer side of the equation. We all need to make a living somehow, and some of us have chosen software development as a means to do this.

When a software developer decides to distribute software and source code freely, this generally causes deflation in the selling price of all software competing with this particular distribution.

They have a word for this in economics: dumping.. the difference here being that the action was committed out of good will towards consumers, not necessarily with the explicit though of taking competing companies out of business.

On top of free software developments, we're seeing a proliferation
of online applications, websites and services all priced at a loss.
Anyone wondering why the tech stocks are falling these days?

29 May 2000 22:26 Avatar brianclark

Open Source: Just getting the job done
One scenario the author did not go into was the internal corporate IT department using open source to solve internal company problems. There are many very effective tools out there that many companies use. These corporate IT people (like me) are just looking for the best tool to get the job done, and to get it done quickly and easily. Often, they use both Open and Closed software to suit their environment.

I think this is how OSS is most effectively used.

29 May 2000 11:04 Avatar pixelfairy

your job does not have to be programming
you can make money in other ways and thus, the issue does not come up. sometimes it happens naturally. For example, many of the gimps developers are probably not paid as programmers but use the gimp in thier work and thus code out of need/desire for the software itself. its also possible to work in an unrelated field and write in your free time

29 May 2000 00:27 Avatar mcelrath

Changing Marketplace
It's a well-known fact that proprietary=money. If you can lock someone in to your stuff, you can milk them for lots of money in the future. Open Source is fundamentally non-proprietary, and therefore, there is far less money to be made by selling software. Imagine every software company was open-source. How many of them do you think there would be? How many OSS programmers would instead be working for non-software oriented businesses, and maintaining OSS software their company uses as part of their job?


I figure an OSS world would support maybe 10% of the number of companies selling software today. (or 10% of the sales) What does that mean for an OSS software company today? If they want to compete with the big boys, they'd better not be depending on direct sales for their profits.


The future of OSS is not in software companies. It's in programmers, hired by companies to take care of the software they use. If you're working for a software company, times are going to be hard for the next few years, and the company will pull all kinds of tricks to make money off the software. And proprietary=money.

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