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All content by Kyle E. Mitchell, who is not your attorney.

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Selective Mythologydefining open source for fun and profit, in the shadow of the enterprise

Open source is one of those marvelous, vacuous phrases, like freedom or maturity, with so many meanings we can’t ever be sure what it means, and such a pleasant sheen we just can’t take it too seriously. Open source is an idealistic political movement. Pragmatic lawyer repellent. A kind of license. A kind of process. A development methodology. A community. A right to self-help. A right to help from others. An insurrection. The status quo. The most modern form of philanthropy. The cutting-edge business model of tomorrow.

All of those sound great. Which is why open source rides so high. But they can’t all be true, for all involved, all the time. They’re abstractions—happy ones—and they leak all over each other.

As a result, to talk about open source consistently is also to talk about open source at least somewhat selectively. And to get things done in open source is to be choosy about the stories of open source we tell, to support our claims of the moment.

In other words, we arbitrage theories of open source. When I want help with software for my business, open source means the hobbyist maintainer ought to help me. When someone else wants free work for their hobby project, open source means they should help themself, and be grateful my company chose to afford the rights and means. When I’m irked by a GPL license, open source means moving on from old Free Software dogma, and relicensing Apache 2.0. When MIT fails to protect me downstream, open source means it ought to be GPL.

Inconsistent? Hardly. We tend to drag out exactly the tropes that describe our own experiences best. And of course arbitrage gets us the most of what we want, every time. High-volume, narrow-bandwidth, gameified interactions train us in the practice, whether we adopt it consciously or not.

Nobody can see the whole open source community. Nobody experiences open source every possible, valid way. We all look for stories that corroborate and support our own. Breadth coupled with selectivity is how movements get big enough to move things. But movements get moved, too.

Access Pass

Every compelling story of open source describes, and matters to, somebody. But some compelling stories of open source are more compelling than others. Values rise and fall with circumstances outside of open source, in the surrounding environment, which affects us all en masse.

Currently, no meaning of open source works more influence on those I advise, be they pious idealists or hard-nosed entrepreneurs, than open source as free pass through corporate procurement. If it’s open source, I can probably get it into my company. If I make it open source, I can probably get it into your company. The deeper open source penetrates industry, the more open source’s value reflects the value of access to industry attention and capital. The more open source, as a vehicle, takes you closer to the money.

But of course “open source” is no “open sesame” to corporate coffers. Firms know that what they have makes them targets, from within and without. So managers set up all manner of defensive controls around the money they pay and the legal terms they accept.

Procurement is the process of running those gauntlets. Net effect, selling software into even a medium-sized company often takes a combined marketing, sales, legal, management, and internal-champion team months. It’s often just as challenging for the person inside the enterprise, who wants to buy the thing, as for the folks on the other side, with the vendor, who want to sell it.

In the past, open source software had to endure pretty much the same ordeal as anything else with legal terms. The lack of a bill didn’t matter, since legal terms alone can obligate companies to pay, which can be a whole lot worse. To this day, free trials of proprietary software products go through procurement processes. But in time, facing pressure both internally, from engineers, and externally, from vendors, companies began to set up parallel open source approval processes.

At simplest, open source policies permit fast-track procurement of open source software under licenses on an approved list. Engineers can often bring such code in themselves, with compliance checks at intervals or release points, rather than before they download to the corporate environment. Typically, no lawyers, sales people, or even managers may be involved, day-to-day. A free pass for known-harmless, or probably harmless, software.

Loss Lead-In

A free pass for $0. Utter lack of payment for the right to use open source software is what you might call a major business limitation. Getting paid is what business does, or it isn’t business. So far, the “business of open source” sounds doomed.

But a mere foot in the door at a large enterprise is worth something, as a successful free trial of a proprietary product is worth something. You’ve validated interest. You’ve proved a concept. You’ve demonstrated a use case. You have someone’s attention. People and processes within the customer’s organization have begun to expect, maybe even rely upon, your software. Your hook is set. Traditional sales organizations spend gobs of booze, beef, and ballgame money on this kind of thing all the time.

In traditional, proprietary software procurement, trial success means it’s contract time: long-term license, plus the largest helpings of integration, configuration, support, maintenance, training, more software, and anything else that you can sell. Permissively licensed open source software forgoes just one sliver of that opportunity: the paid license for the software they already have. You’ll have to go through procurement for the rest. But you didn’t have to go through procurement for the trial. In fact, when someone kicks the tires on your open source software and decides to pass, you may not spend any time on them at all. The opportunities you do hear about tend to be the cream.

We often think of open source as a loss leader. Eat the cost of putting the product out. Forgo income from self-sufficient users and maybe even empowered competitor-vendors. All to sow a broader field, where other opportunity can grow. But open source can also act as a cost-less leader within bigco procurement. The field is known and finite: companies big enough to spend enterprise money on you. At the cost of slightly reduced paid-deal scope, you can run an efficient sales program addressing the whole market, with a skeleton crew, maybe even by yourself. The missing license-fee line item might be a pittance.

Flow-Through

This dynamic affects not only those selling to enterprises, but those selling to those selling to enterprises, and, more broadly, anyone trying to get their software into organizations with real or aspirational enterprise taste. Startups play fast and loose to start, but see the compliance reckoning coming, as financing or acquisition due diligence. Active value added resellers and consultancies spend most of a year in at least somebody’s procurement process, and know better than to bring unnecessary problems in with them. Big company employees canvass the land of open source, telling the stories of open source that encourage making work available to them without procurement hassle.

Open source has reached out and touched a great many companies who never saw it coming. In this, we say, “open source won”. But it’s open source, not industry, that changed most in the process. Not just in preference for MIT over GPL, dry technocracy over wet Free Software politics. In the volume and frequency with which the open source story gets told form the enterprise-consumer point of view.

Most of the stories told today focus on how good open source is to use. Most of the stories told today emphasize that open source costs no money, not time, not even, particularly, much attention. A shopping spree. Open source was the blood enemy of industry, competing with private products, and threatening to snuff them. Open source now serves largely as a performance-enhancer for firms holding source and control back from users. As it turns out, industry and its money mean a lot more, to a lot more people, than the niche causes and peculiar ideology of the anti-industry era.

If you have a different story of open source to tell, how are you going to make it heard?

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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