Open source meets Old-Fashioned Capitalism

Suppliers open "parts" of development suites, but still own elements of key technologies to maintain control of "intellectual property," provide services and generate revenues.

Vendors ranging from IBM and Sun Microsystems to Borland and Sendmail are adopting an approach for some of their software that blends pieces of the open-source movement with old-fashioned capitalism. For its part, IBM plans to open source "parts" of its WebSphere Studio application development toolkit, according to Stefan van Overtveldt, director of technical marketing for WebSphere. The general idea, he said, is to make the user interface—and other pieces that are common to all the tools in the WebSphere environment—widely available to the larger community.

The goal is to provide "enough extension points" for multiple tools from various vendors to "share resources" within the developer environment, van Overtveldt said. The idea is for WebSphere to provide a comprehensive set of tools that address all the different steps in the development life cycle, even if those tools come from different vendors. All of the tools will have a common look-and-feel so customers do not have a huge learning curve to overcome before they can start writing applications.

While IBM is open-sourcing part of its WebSphere toolkit, said van Overtveldt, "we will also sell versions that incorporate the base technology with support from IBM and added functionality on top of it."

van Overtveldt would not specify a timeframe for these moves, but did say that IBM will make the source code of "tool elements" available to the wider community in a "managed process."

In other words, the WebSphere code will not be truly "open" in the sense that anyone will be able to post fixes, changes or patches to the code base, which is the case in open-source projects such as most of those available on SourceForge.com. Instead, IBM will manage the process, with would-be contributors first sending their new code or suggestions to the firm. IBM will then post the contributions it feels are most appropriate.

Borland Software Corp., Scotts Valley, Calif., already takes this approach with its InterBase database management system, available in both for-fee and open-source versions; all proposed changes from outside developers go through the company first.

Initially, the InterBase open-source project was to be spun off into a separate company. But that proposal fell apart, for political and other reasons, and instead Borland decided to make the DBMS, then in its sixth version, available in two flavors—free and for-fee.

"There's a significant need out there for companies to stand behind the software they sell with quality assurance and 24x7 support," said Frank Slootman, vice president of products at Borland. Motorola, for instance, uses InterBase as part of the emergency response systems it sells to local and state governments, and "wouldn't take" the open-source version of InterBase, added Slootman.

When InterBase first became available as an open-source product in January 2000, demand for the product went down. Customers believed that because the product was free, there probably was not much value in it, explained Slootman. But when the firm once again released InterBase as a commercial version, sales rose; this quarter has been particularly strong, added Slootman, although he declined to release figures.

Borland took a different tack with its Kylix IDE for Linux, which is available only as a fee-based commercial package. "We didn't want to turn over our intellectual property," explained Michael Swindell, director of Borland's RAD business unit; this is often the case with customers as well.

"Many corporate developers are interested in using Linux as a platform, but they don't want to build their projects as open-source projects," Swindell said.

That said, however, the libraries of components within Kylix are available as both for-fee and open-source, Swindell said. "Developers can choose which license to use."

That is also the case with Sendmail's e-mail program, which was developed as part of Arpanet and thus pre-dates the Internet. As the Web has grown, and the open-source version of Sendmail along with it, the code's original authors realized they needed to form a company to keep up with customers' demands for support and service.

But because Sendmail has been part of the open-source community for so long, the company's founders did not want to yank it away. "The core of the source code has been freely distributed via the 'Net," said Greg Olson, one of the Emeryville, Calif.-based firm's co-founders. "That was actually part of the academic tradition, publish-and-comment, and that has been its legacy."

Instead, the company decided to offer a commercial version that extends the open-source code. In addition to support and service, the packaged version comes in a standard package that adds a GUI-based wizard to make it easier to install and administer than the free code.

But just as there are things in the commercial version that are not available in the open-source version, the opposite is also true, Olson added. Among the features in open-source Sendmail missing from the for-fee version are the tools that allow developers to port Sendmail to run on any of the 88 different environments it supports.

The company thinks about the open-source and commercial versions of Sendmail as "distinct product lines; they have their own markets and their own user bases," Olson said.

When a feature or function has "anything to do with standards," it must be in the open-source version, as must anything that has been contributed by the open-source community at large, Olson explained. The company also pays developers to contribute to the open-source version, he added, making Sendmail—the company—a "sponsor" instead of a "pure" open-source project. The upside to paying people, however, is that releases come out faster and there is more innovation.

Also, the open-source version of Sendmail is the basis for the proprietary version, so it is a "good investment," Olson explained. The company releases the first versions of new features in the open-source edition, so that by the time they get to the commercial version, "they're rock-solid" because they have been tested so thoroughly.

As for Sun Microsystems, it is open-sourcing its NetBeans IDE, written in Java. Sun released the code as an open-source project in June 2000, and its Community Edition distribution of NetBeans is free of charge. Sun has done "some QA" on the Community Edition, and sells a support contract for it, said Tim Beaudreau, senior product manager for NetBeans at Sun.

In contrast, Borland does not sell support contracts for the open-source edition of InterBase, but will answer questions about the DBMS's core functionality.

During the past year, 17 new modules have been developed and accepted into the NetBeans code base. There have been more than 1 million downloads of the code, and more than 150 community members have permission to change the code base.

For developers with complex application needs, Sun sells the Forté for Java toolkit as a commercial version of NetBeans.

Beaudreau said that open-sourcing NetBeans has been a "huge win" not only for Sun, but for customers. "We wanted to have a robust, strong, open-source tools platform," he said. "Any single vendor will never find it strategic to implement all the things that developers would want."

Open-sourcing NetBeans has also helped to convince some companies that were sitting on the fence about building on top of it, Beaudreau explained. "One of the reasons companies are willing to jump on the bandwagon is because it's open source. Sun can't pull the rug out; they own the source code."

In addition to NetBeans, Sun also makes its OpenOffice applications suite and Grid Engine clustering software available as open source.

Even the vaunted SourceForge—the largest collection of open-source projects on the 'Net—is going to a hybrid business model. Although SourceForge on the Web will remain free, VA Linux Systems, its owner, is developing a commercial version called SourceForge Enterprise Edition. This software development environment, meant to foster collaboration in companies, will include proprietary extensions to SourceForge, including software that "interfaces with VA Linux customers' existing proprietary applications," according to a statement on the SourceForge site.

Bill Claybrook, a research director at the Aberdeen Group in Boston, sees this hybrid model as the wave of the future. "Commercial enterprises will like" this approach, he said. "They'll see suppliers as probably going to be around longer because the companies will be making money."

Eventually, said Claybrook, the proprietary and open-source worlds will converge, and customers will benefit the most. In this new world, software will be cleaner, less expensive and freer of bugs. One can only hope.

About the Author

Johanna Ambrosio is a freelance writer based in Marlborough, Mass., specializing in technology and business. Contact her at jambrosio@earthlink.net.

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