Subject: problems with open source
From: Nassib Nassar <nassar@etymon.com>
Date: Mon, 22 Mar 1999 11:46:11 -0500

Hi,

I'm posting these notes to the fsb list at the suggestion of a friend,
who felt they might be of interest here.  I own a small
software/consulting company, and almost all of my software releases in
the past have been open source.

I'm almost at the point where I have to make some decisions about how
to release a new software product.  My last product went out under
GPL.  That experience has led me to question whether open source is
right (from a business point of view) for the new product.  Here is
what I like about open source:

1) Good publicity and widespread acceptance of the product.  Easy to
leverage for consulting.

2) Good for the community.  In an ideal world, we shouldn't be slaves
to corporations selling binary executables.  Most importantly, we can
maintain our own computer system, the way people used to be able to
fix their own car or radio before everything turned to "black boxes"
and integrated circuit boards.

3) It's hard for anybody to undercut a free product.

4) Completely free for universities and other educational
organizations.  I like this one in particular.

Here's what I don't like:

1) It's harder than it sounds to make a commercial version different
enough that people will pay for it.  Of course this depends on the
type of software.  It can be a significant problem.

2) Competitors have the complete blueprint for my product.  I don't
have one for theirs.

3) Users contribute changes, but unless they willingly sign over
copyrights, I can't incorporate those changes and still be able to
re-license commercial versions to customers (using different terms),
because I'll no longer own the entire source code.  NPL and MozPL
address this problem, but they also are much less restrictive about
re-distribution.  (A necessary concession, apparently.)

4) Users contribute changes, putting pressure on us to add not only
features people request, but also features that they have contributed
code for, even if I don't have the rights to use that code (i.e. we
have to redo it from scratch, see #3).

5) It is too educational! :) Midway through a project, one client
learned enough to do customization work on his own, and then didn't
need us anymore.  This is a good thing too, but I'd prefer to stay in
business.

One possible solution to all this would be to use a much more
restrictive license.  For example, continue to release source code,
but limit it to non-commercial or even educational use, for example,
and forbid redistribution of any kind, unless the user buys a
commercial license.  Unfortunately, the more restrictive this is, the
less it is likely to be regarded as "true" open source, and then the
conceptual and political benefits of using open source in the first
place may be lost.

I don't have an overwhelming bias to use open source; I simply see
advantages and disadvantages as listed above.  From a purely business
point of view, I'm starting to lean away from open source for certain
products.

What do you think?  Is this of any interest?  Any suggestions or
comments?

Thanks,
Nassib