Open Source Firms: What is an OS company, anyway?

A recurring theme of discussion is exactly what defines an “OS company”. Many potential customers are finding more and more difficult to distinguish between “real” open source, viewable code licenses, quasi-open and more; companies are trying to leverage the opportunity of the OS market to push an offering, even if it is not OSS at all.

Recursion Recursion by gadl

Of course, a company like Alfresco can proudly claim that – being its main offering a pure GPL software – they are OS, libre, and whatever. But what exactly makes a company an open one?
It is not difficult to find previous traces of the same argument before; starting from Mark Shuttleworth’s comments, Aitken’s ones or by Savio Rodrigues. Within the FLOSSMETRICS project we are facing the same problem, that is how to assess the “openness” of a company, and we observed a few things:

  • an OSS project is not only about code; in fact, in many projects the amount of non-code assets (like documentation, translations, ancillary digital material) is substantial. Considering companies as open only by measuring code patches is reductive;
  • a company may sponsor a project in many ways. For example, granting hired programmers time to work on OSS projects (during work hours) is an indirect monetary sponsoring activity; hiring main developers and giving them flexibility to continue develop OSS code is a direct sponsoring.

There are relatively few examples of the first kind; among them, companies that localize and create country-specific versions (like the italian accounting scheme for the Adempiere ERP created by Anthas to allow for a simpler commercialization.

The second model is quite common: IBM sponsors development of the Apache web server, as a basis of its Websphere product, Google employees are asked to work for an OSS projects one day per week on company time (and sponsoring the summer of code, by the way), EnterpriseDB pays many PostgreSQL developers.

Given this, we ended up classifying OS firms as those that:

  • sponsor, support, facilitate an open source project, that is a project that has a license compatible with the OSD definition, in a direct or indirect way.
  • the sponsoring/support must be continuous, that is it should not be a single, one time contribution.

This allows to include only those companies that leverage OSS in an organic and structural way, or they would not be able to justify the investment over an extensive period of time.

This excludes one-time donations, for example; and it also excludes those companies that just take OSS and resell it packaged without added value, or “dump” a worthless software code under an OSS license hoping that someone willtake it up from there.

Technorati Tags: adempiere, alfresco, anthas, Commercial Open Source, Open Source Firm

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4 thoughts on “Open Source Firms: What is an OS company, anyway?

  1. I agree Roberto, defining an OSS company is difficult and going to get increasingly so as more companies add OSS into their software strategy.

    Something that I’ve been thinking about since OSBC, which relates to your post…

    We’ve all heard about how open source Google uses to run their business. We also know that Google pays (some of their) employees to work on OSS projects as part of their day jobs. But what of all the OSS changes that Google makes and does not contribute back to the community? Does that make Google a ‘bad’ OSS company? How can they be ‘bad’ when they’re using OSS in a way that the OSS license allows??? But really, we all know that Google can’t be bad/evil, right :-)

  2. @Stefano Maffulli: Stefano I couldn’t manage to comment your post (may be is it great time to become a FSFE Fellow in order to? ;-), so I am writing you here for the time being. Mission and CSR might help, but my guess is that it is more effective to judge firms by their actions, even if requires some effort.

    @Open Source Solutions: I guested Carlo’s post even if I previously took a completely different position on the matter, and now I am seriously wondering about it all.

    @Savio: you are raising the same point I early discussed with Carlo, amazing! ;-) We all know Google is taking advantage of the GPL loophole, but it is also true that is contributing to many projects, and we can’t also forget the Google Summer of code.

    I think we should start creating categories reflecting the corporate-community relationship, and also the “old” Externally funded”/ “Internally funded” models. But all these (complex) distinctions might bring more confusion than clarity, I am afraid.

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