Mambo Jumbo – OSS Community vs. Commercial

Here is the article that got me thinking today. The community of devs working on Mambo have split off to create Joomla - the same product on a forked code base with a different future direction. The big beef was over the control of the project being asserted by the core maintainers at Miro. The team at Miro claim to be the originators of the project and have spun off a non-profit (the Mambo Foundation) "...whose mission is to manage the Mambo project, will ensure the security, longevity and success of Mambo and its community of users." Except the community has decided to work on its own strategy for longevity.

This situation strikes at the heart of the commercialization of OSS. A GPL-licensed project, with commercial intent from the creators who are now being vilified for wanting to control their project. Matt Asay from Novell commented to me a long ago that it is not the source code that you should worry about, it is about being the source of the code that allows for free software to be used in a commercial sense. I'm not sure that the folks at Miro would concur with that analysis now. I'm not saying Matt is wrong, I think that the team at Miro forgot a critical rule in collabdev projects goverend by the GPL.

Among the many catchy phrases from the Free Software/OSS glossary is the idea of a "benevolent dictator." The maintainer of the project, the owner of the copyright, the person calling the shots (think Linus, think Miguel) should be adept at listening to the community, but deciding who to listen to. They should guide the project with a firm hand but know that the community can, at any time, fork away from them and build a new community away from the originating team.

As I see it, Miro has two choices now. They can bid farewell to the departing crew (the sepratists) and decide to generate some healthy competition, thus having the innovation premium be the deciding factor in which implementation is ultimately the more successful.  The second choice is to apologize for their behavior, change their point of view, modify the bylaws of the Mambo Foundation, console the community and merge the two projects back together. In a world of commoditized software (which they are by definition playing in due to the GPL as the governing license), there may not be a viable path in having 2 implementations.

The customers are in a different boat. If you have implemented Mambo, what do you do? Which project is going to have the momentum, where will choice abound (in terms of add-ons, utilities, consulting firms with available talent to help me...), and how does this affect the decision about production deployments? Of course, in the traditional commercial software space, small companies come and go, and this is always a challenge. The OSS argument, of course, is that at least the customer always has source available if they have to go it alone.

But I see this all in a different light. If I had a draw-string on my back and it were pulled each time I got on stage at an OSS conference or panel, it would be the same message. The more open source is commercialized, the more closed it must become. The effects of competition, the realities of contractual requirements in support contracts, the basic rule of economics that scarcity increases value, etc. all have the same effect. If you want to be a commercial player, you are going to have to figure out where your control points are, what makes you unique, and how that uniqueness will be converted into a revenue stream. 

Miro was doing exactly that. I am sure they looked at other successful OSS-based companies and thought about the ways in which a business can be built. Mambo is clearly some compelling technology (the community participation and download numbers speak for themselves), and the core team at Miro should be proud of their baby. MySQL, Sugar, JBOSS, SleepyCat and others provide one set of examples while the Apache, Python, and Eclipse Foundations another. Somewhere in there is a balance to be struck for a small player to establish a strong services practice. But the real multiplier for your billable rate is if you are the project owner. Back to Asay - be the source of the code.

This situation will not be the last of its kind. As an open source project becomes successful and moves into broad use it begins to represent significant economic opportunity. The natural tension between the tenets of free software and commercialization will come into conflict. Collabdev project maintainers have a hard road and these factors only make it more challenging for them. The question that occurs to me out of all of this is: do software companies engaged with OSS projects know why they are doing it? In other words - is the marketing bang of an OSS release worth the risk to the commercial opportunity?


Comments (3)
  1. andrew aitken says:

    I read this post with the idea of commenting about Miro/Mambo if I was going to comment at all. But one thing stuck out for me about your general analysis of the economic aspects of open source that needs a bit of response. That is your statement that "the basic rule of economics that scarcity increases value". Open source seems to change this particular dynamic. Let’s look at Sugar, it is exactly the opposite, the value of their code increases with it’s availability and ubiquity. And this is being achieved through a complete focus on providing value to their "community", composed of customers, SIs and VARs. Very much the same thing can be said for MySQL or Jboss. I doubt very much that if their code were closed/proprietary that they would have achieved what they have in such a short time. Yes, their revenues are still fairly small in contrast to their established proprietary competitors but I think the important data points to look at are adoption rate, marketshare, and roadmap progression. This equation may change though as open source moves into newer technologies and away from established segments that are ripe for commoditization. That’s where the choice of business and license models will be critical.

  2. jasonmatusow says:

    Andrew – Thanks for the comment. But I think you are missing my point a bit. MySQL’s value is exactly in the scarcity they have built. It is just that the OSS model w/ free software and copyright assignment has allowed them to build that scarcity in a different place. While it is true that MySQL’s code is available to anyone, they do not have a broad-based community of core contributors. Their core devs are all employed by MySQL. They have a great deal of value built up in human assets and due to the difficulty of their code base – they are not likely to have too many competitors in this space. 1) They mandate assignment of copyright if you want to cotribute to their code. That means they have the control over the product. 2) The origninators and subsequent experts in the code base work for them. 3) They can use the free distribution mechanism as a brilliant way to cut the costs of sales and marketing, as a commoditizing force in their favor etc. But what comes of this is that they are unique in their position and thus able to defend their space as well as their revenue streams. The long-term question is if their model becomes more standard, and if they can make a great deal of money this way. VCs are funny in that they like big return rates. So if this model is to last, it has to show those types of returns as compared to the more traditional models. (Red Hat is also blazing a path with a different take on the same thing – and they are showing big revenues.) JBOSS, Sugar…it looks to me like MySQL is a great proxy for these other companies. Agree? – Jason

  3. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols expressed his desire to see fewer OSI-approved licenses a couple of days ago….

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