Subject: Re: Returns to service professionals (was Re: New ESR paper: The Magic Cauldron)
From: Brian Behlendorf <>
Date: Mon, 28 Jun 1999 10:17:03 -0700 (PDT)

On Mon, 28 Jun 1999, Keith Bostic wrote:
> > From: "Tim O'Reilly" <>
> >
> > I fear that these companies consider their applications as their
> > competitive advantage.
> We approached a very large company that uses Berkeley DB for
> lots of things, asking them not for money, but just to use
> them as a reference.  Here's what they told us:
>     We certainly appreciate all the work you guys have put into your
>     Berkeley DB software, and we do indeed use it internally in quite
>     a number of areas.  I think we'd be open to talking to you about
>     how we use it in general, but only in the context of giving you
>     some product feedback and perhaps guiding your future development.
>     We are extremely tight-lipped about which technologies/software
>     we use and how we use them, due to the fact that we'd rather not
>     "enable" our competitors and give them a blueprint for building
>     successful e-commerce platforms.

This sentiment is extremely widespread amongst other large companies I
know of who use O-S as a core component in their online offerings.  It's a
bit short-sighted and greedy, but hey, when the IPO is just around the
door (or it's passed and you need to look good on your quarterly
statements), "enabling your competitors" is a serious uber-concern.  This
market is so fluid and capital-rich (and online services with low
user "stickyness" are especially vulnerable) that anything that can save
your competitors money or time-to-market is considered one notch above

Note that, as best I can tell, the viral nature of the GPL is useless
against this kind of proprietary use, since the service being provided
isn't about distributing software.  An online services company can add
proprietary patches to a GPL'd codebase all day long, confident in the
knowlege they won't ever have to give that code away.  Is this a bug in
the GPL?  Maybe - though I fear how someone might try to "fix" it, since
it would involve going far beyond copyright into the realm of "you won't
allow someone else to *use* any *downstream* benefits of this code without
giving them the complete code base", which would be kinda perverse.  

In fact, one could easily imagine a company hoping to compete against
Cygnus by building on top of GNU tools, which today would be discouraged
from doing so since their proprietary "cool" compiler ideas would have to
be released under a GPL license (which Cygnus could then turn around and
use themselves).  If instead of releasing compiler software, they
introduced an online compiling toolset, where you uploaded your source
code to their servers, and they compiled the code on their servers and let
you download the binaries.  In such a situation (and I could be wrong,
please let me know), any proprietary additions could be kept closed, since
technically they aren't "distributing" the software.

Cygnus has done a good job of educating its customer base about the
benefits of having those types of tools open-sourced, so this new company
would have to compete against that - so this may not be a great example,
but I think it illustrates the point.

I think the free software/open source community needs to find a way to
show these services organizations the benefits of being a part of the open
source development process.  These benefits are far more tangential and
ephemeral than can be made to IT vendors like IBM.  This is probably in
some ways similar to the battles I'm sure Cygnus had to fight to convince
chip vendors to not worry about publicly available code that essentially
documented those chip's innards, though I think we're talking about an
even more fluid situation.  

It's going to be a challenge for sourceXchange, I'm sure.  Going to an
Amazon or a Yahoo to help find useful projects will be a challenge.  I'm
hoping we can attack it from the opposite direction - finding projects
proposed by the community that may suit a particular company's needs, and
getting them to fund it.  Perhaps that funding isn't even because of an
internal need, but out of a sense of committment back to the "community".
Of course, business models based on alleving customer guilt tend to be
kinda shaky. =)