What Does a Paying Open Source Customer Look Like?

Sure open source is free, yet there are thousands paying good money to use it. Here is a profile of one such customer and why they do it.

So what does someone who pays to use open source software look like? The easy answer is they look a lot like you and I. But seriously, up until just a few years ago the idea of paying to use open source software would have been ludicrous.

But as I wrote about yesterday, open source software use in the enterprise appears to be exploding. And plenty of those using these open source tools are also paying for support, added feature sets and services. This is fueling record growth and revenue in the open source enterprise class market.

Some of this is in traditional software licenses and subscriptions. In other instances it is using open source in a SaaS(software-as-a-service) or dare we use the word, cloud model. No matter whether you host the software yourself or not though, what is the profile of a customer who is paying to use open source software? What do they look like?

I had the chance to speak with Charles Cantrell, an automation engineer at ExactTarget just the other day. Charles is a living, breathing paying customer for MindTouch's enterprise collaboration platform. ExactTarget is a leader in the enterprise email marketing market. Many of the mailing lists you are signed up for and the legitimate email you receive from large companies could in fact be managed at ExactTarget.

Charles has lots of experience with enterprise collaboration software. At his last job his company sunk about 250k into a proprietary collaboration solution. When he first came to ExactTarget as a consultant, they already had the open sourced, free core version of MindTouch running. He took over managing that install and really liked the freedom, ease of use and feature set it offered. When Charles transitioned to a full time employee at ExactTarget managing the collaboration platform was his baby.

MindTouch offered two upgrades from the core version he was using. One was the standard version which offered some feature upgrades, but more importantly for Charles offered commercial level support. The other was the Enterprise version which offered even more features.   Charles chose to upgrade to the standard version.

Charles's decision criteria is interesting and bears analysis. The added features that the standard set offered were "nice to have", but frankly he could have done with out them or cooked up some workarounds.  For Charles having the comfort of commercial grade support was what it was about. He says the few times he has called for support it has been a great experience.

Now there are those in the commercial open source community who say that a business model based on support alone is destined to fail.  I don't pretend to be as smart as them (OK maybe just a little), but if Charles is indicative of anything, I say the pundits are wrong.  Commercial support is what is selling subscriptions.  The added features are nice, but not nice enough to make Charles buy the product.

Overall though Charles is a big fan of open source. He thinks it offers a higher quality product than proprietary software. Regardless of whether it is open or not, Charles is going to pay for support, so paying for open source support is not odd to him at all. Frankly, at this point Charles is not 100% sure if the open source supported solution is much cheaper than the non-open solution. He is using the open source solution because he believes it is better. It is better he believes because it is built on open source.

If you get nothing else out of this blog post, get that. People are paying for open source solutions, whether we call them open core with commercial features or not, because they think they are a superior solution!

Brian Prentice over at Gartner wrote a blog post today bashing open source and open core software vendors. I always chuckle when Gartner bashes software vendors to their IT customers. I wonder if those same IT customers know that Gartner bashes them when talking to these same software vendors who are also paying Gartner gobs of money. Quite a business model, better even than commercial open source.

Anyway, I will dedicate my post tomorrow to address Brian Prentice's post. For now, remember who pays for open source software? People who think that they are getting the best solution for the money. They are not being fooled or foolish.  They think the people who would not pay for these solutions are the fools.

Please visit the Open Source Subnet home page for more news, blogs and podcasts. Sign up for the weekly Open Source newsletter.

More blog posts from Alan Shimel:

Subscribe to all Google Subnet bloggers or Follow Google Subnet on Twitter

Check out Alan Shimel's Podcast and other blogs, too.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in