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Marten Mickos says open source doesn't have to be fully open

Mickos defends the open core license as being a healthy alternative for software startups.

The term "open core" essentially means that the heart of a software project is built on, and remains, open source but added features may not be (particularly a commercial version intended for enterprise use).VC-funded software start-ups love this model.

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There's a lot of controversy about it -- and not all of it from FOSS purist types. Some say it's the best of both worlds, giving software companies access to committers, giving users the ability to make changes, while hiding the parts that could be valuable intellectual property, and making the software company responsible for them. Others say that it is nothing of the kind ... just a variation on the classic software pricing game that gives user a free taste with the goal to up-sell them to a proprietary full suite later.

Most people involved in the open source movement are generally OK with open-core in principal -- because they are generally OK with any license in principal. They think the person that writes the code gets to choose the restrictions on its use, and they can use another application if they don't like the restrictions. (Also check out this podcast, where a VC Brad Feld discusses Open vs. Closed: Is one better?)

On the other hand, the free software movement isn't so much about not having to pay for software, but about having control over what the software does on your computer, your network, your servers and, more specifically, with your data. If it shares your info in a way you don't want to share it, you are empowered to discover this (you can see the source) and change it. When proprietary components are packaged in with an open core, that advantage goes away.

Marten Mickos
Marten Mickos is an advocate of the open core concept. Mickos is former CEO of MySQL, one of the earliest open source companies to figure out how to make money at it. He is currently CEO of Eucalyptus Systems, which uses the open core model on its flagship private cloud application.

"We deliver a fully functional cloud with Eucalyptus software. You can download it on a GPL v3 license. But, additionally, we provide enterprise features only if you pay for them ... it's open core," he says.

Those involved in the early days of open source can look around and say that open source has achieved a lot of the goals they envisioned for it. "But it still hasn't achieved fantastic business success, except for Red Hat and MySql, what is needed is a business model, and that's why open core is needed," he says.

As for the fear that open core is just another form of trying to make proprietary software king-of-the-hill again, Mickos says, not true. "History proves otherwise. Red Hat, MySql -- the more more money they made the more open code they produced. This is a self regulating equation, if an open source has been closed, than others will take over." Open source software can even be found for the Mac, he notes, one of the most closed systems in the world.

Obviously not all creators of open source projects want or need such a business model. "Look at Apache," Mickos says, "the most successful open source project ever. At the same time, there's no revenue. No revenue, no VCs, no CEO. That's fine. They set out to achieve world domination without making money and they achieved that. Others want world domination while making money and that's up to people to create."

While I'm, personally, not convinced that open core is the best long-term method, most of the worlds' businesses still run their critical IT infrastructures on proprietary software. So I can see open core as being a stepping stone in two ways. First to bring enterprises into the open source world, while still giving them all the support, features and sense of accountability they want from their vendor.

Second, and this could be more important, as a way that older software companies can make the shift into the brave new world of open source. Open core may allow them to open chunks of their code, while keeping other bits closer to their vest.

Mickos says such a transition isn't even so much about the code as about the people. "There's a big cultural shift that must happen in a corporation in order to be successful in open source projects ... you can look at Sun. Sun made a successful transition. You have to give them credit for creating Opensolaris, Glassfish, open processes around Java, acquiring MySql. There are questions if Oracle can do the same."

He believes Oracle will figure it out, though not without making some mistakes along the way. But in Mickos's view, that's another cultural shift, because in open source, mistakes are A-OK.

He says that the open source culture "acknowledges the darwinism" of its world. "There are lots of attempts for one super success ... and it's difficult to predict where it will be," he says. "In the closed source world, every project must succeed, [or its creator is] dubbed a great a failure if it fails, as it consumes a lot of resources."

With open source, there can be an endless number of projects, hundreds of thousands, none of them with funding, consuming very few resources. "Many of them die out. Some of them survive. Open source makes failure an option ... and failure must be an option," he says.

But will open core projects, as a favorite for VC funding, remain in the "failure is an option" category? That remains to be seen.

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