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Though arguably in its early stages, the trend is accelerating. Last week Oracle announced it would buy open source database vendor Sleepycat Software, and rumors continue to swirl about its interest in JBoss, one of the leading open source application server firms. Last year IBM bought open source infrastructure company Gluecode Software, and Check Point Software is finalizing its purchase of Snort-creator Sourcefire. At the same time, commercial vendors are beginning to offer versions of their proprietary products for free and are contributing proprietary code to the open source community hoping to make money on services and support.
Still, there are concerns as commercial vendors ingest the companies that were the first to make this business model work. At risk is the loss of user access to key application development personnel - a hallmark of open source projects - and the potential departure of critical project stewards.
"I believe what will really determine the success or failure of commercial firms purchasing open source vendors is the extent to which they can keep the key developers," says Barry Strasnick, CIO at CitiStreet, a benefits management company in Quincy, Mass. "One of the main reasons that CitiStreet likes to deal with vendors such as JBoss is that our senior technical staff can deal with their technical staff, instead of having to deal with useless layers in between," he says. "We don't buy software because of fancy brochures or well-dressed sales staff. We buy software to gain benefit from great programmers."
Another concern with commercial vendors acquiring open source companies is the possibility that the software could be applied to enhance proprietary products.
"The question that customers need to pay attention to is what is going to happen to the code that was open source," says Bob Igou, a research director at Gartner. "Does it remain open source? Is the acquiring company going to make sure it's even better tested and quality assured and provide services around it? Or are they worst case going to cannibalize it and integrate it into something else they're doing and in a sense the open source product goes away?"
It remains to be seen how these acquiring vendors will treat their new open source assets. Users are watching with caution.
"It's a bit too early to know whether [this trend] will be beneficial," says Corey Ostman, director of new technology initiatives at PriceGrabber.com in Culver City, Calif. "One of the biggest challenges would be if these commercial companies morph the [open source] products in such a way that they no longer offer leading-edge technologies."
Even if that does happen, Ostman says he is convinced that the open source community likely will develop alternatives to fill the gap.
"The open source marketplace has always been competitive and dynamic," he says.