Misunderstanding Open Source

I don’t think Troy Brumley of Cincom (another commercial vendor of Smalltalk) understands open source very well. Writing of the end of Dolphin Smalltalk, he writes:

The discussion made me think again about price points. It’s difficult to charge a sustainable price for software when so much stuff is free or open sourced. That’s a pity. Developers should be unashamed to charge a fair price for their wares, and people should be willing to pay for it.

I agree with his last sentence. As do others whose livelihoods are tied to open source — companies like Red Hat, Novell, IBM, Oracle, and Sun.

The problem isn’t a proliferation of free or open software, it’s the particular business model chosen. Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun, has written extensively on why Sun is embracing open source and relicensing their software: the net effect is that it’s good for their business because it gives them exposure to more markets. This exposure will eventually lead to selling more services and more hardware. How does that hurt Sun?

Red Hat charges for their Enterprise Linux. So does Oracle. And what about those IBMers who show up to install Linux mainframes? They’re not free. They’re also not cheap.

Open source isn’t about price. It’s not about giving away something to which you ascribe a commercial value. It’s about how you add value to something.

Look at the most prevalent languages being used in web development and elsewhere: perl, python, ruby, php, Java, etc. How many of those are closed source? How many people make money using them?

Each of those languages has tremendous commercial value — Java is a Sun open source product and they make money off it! — even though they’re “freely” available. The commercial value isn’t just tied to those who make use of the languages. The developers also make money from service, from writing books, from giving seminars to companies that use their wares. And their financial input into development is reduced because they have active communities developing for them.

Dolphin’s developers see themselves as the only ones who can add value to it, yet they’re also the ones who’ve killed it and decided that it would make them happier to see it die altogether than have life breathed back into it by opening its source. That’s certainly their right.

That’s sad because now Dolphin has no value. Not to the developers, not to the customers who bought licenses for something that’s now at a dead end, and not to anyone else who would’ve been interested in it.

The price point is zero. It’s not sustainable. Nobody can have it. Everyone loses.

And that’s the ultimate end of closed source.

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