Free and Open Source Software != Business Model

Free and Open Source Software != Business Model.

When something is free, you are the product … right?

While often true (Facebook, Instagram, Google), there are people who want to help others, who want to give back to the community. So yes, in this free and open source software case, Santa exists.

The first misconception we need to discuss, is that Free and Open Source Software is not gratis by definition. While there are many foss projects, like the Linux kernel, where the software is also gratis, that’s not a fact. If you want to use Red Hat Linux, you have to pay for it, so it’s not gratis. In this short article, I want to discuss with you the business models behind some open source projects and/or open source companies.

Basically there are three kind of Free and Open Source Projects which all have different takes in making money or not.

Community Projects

As a general rule the most community projects, like the Linux kernel or the OCA for the Odoo community edition, are communities. A big group of people more or less organized around an open source project to build the software. In most cases, their software is gratis to use. Sometimes there are individual professionals inside such a community which offer paid services. Imagine that you want a new module for the Odoo Community edition, but it’s not there. You can then hire a developer to build the module for you. You pay the guy and the module is added as an open source module for the entire community, just for the grabs. So you see that in this construction it’s already a bit diffuse, if the software is entirely gratis or not. To make it even more strange, there are communities where they hate any financial initiative. Someone told me once, that we were not really in to open source, because we are a company and charge money. Not true, of course, as we honor the four freedoms. Most communities operate like Santa, they give you something free and gratis.

Enterprise Projects

Enterprise projects are really in the fuzzy domain, some enterprises deliver gratis software, but offer services like support. Other companies do charge a license fee, but still the source code is open. A company like Thunderbird thrives on donations. But the really tricky enterprises (Yes Odoo, it's about you), start offering their source code as gratis free and open source, but when the project has many users, they start charging money, or worse … become whole or partly proprietary. This almost always leads to an immediate forking of the source code by the community. This did not only happen with Odoo Enterprise and the Odoo Community, this also happened with MySQL. MySQL was an open source project of Sun Microsystems. When Sun was bought by Oracle, the community forked MySQL and MariaDB was born. Very recently, the popular in memory project Redis went full-blown commercial and the community reacted with a fork and Valkey was born. So it’s really foggy, but most enterprises found a way to earn some cash, while maintaining a foss model… and if they become too greedy, they get forked!

Solo Projects

Anything mentioned before with community and enterprise projects, can be applied to solo projects too. For solo projects, I want to address something else, mainly sustainability. When using software from a solo project, you are depending on a single developer, which can stop. So no community, no Enterprise is dangerous for the continuity. 

To draw a conclusion. A lot of foss community projects are also gratis, while most Enterprise driven projects have to find a way to make money. This can be with paid services, paid proprietary extra’s, full subscription models and donations. But as you can see, Santa does exist.

Open Source Thrives Innovation