On commercial open-source
Since its inception open-source and free went hand in hand. Open source is more than the availability of the source – it is a development philosophy that encourages contribution, transparency and the right to customize software to your specific needs. Open-source is responsible for a lot innovation and progress in software development.
We started Binpress to provide web developers with a platform to sell open-source packages. The concept was met mostly with a favorable response, however some purists have said that it is somewhat against the philosophy of open-source.
Are free open-source and commercial open-source mutually exclusive? in my opinion, that is furthest from the truth – in fact, I will try to demonstrate that free and commercial open-source are complementary and together help the open-source industry flourish.
Custom open-source development
Even the most hardcore purists will agree that custom development using open-source tools should not be done for free. Almost all web development done today involves creating custom solutions or modifying existing open source platforms to fit special requirements.
We have been doing this for a while now – developing custom solutions for clients on top of an open-source stack. While what we actually sell is our time, the end deliverable is open-source code.
That means that technically all paid custom open-source development creates commercial open-source code. The vast majority of it will never be released at all, never mind for free. It is a not a big leap to take reusable parts of from the resulting code and sell them as standalone products.
Custom web development can benefit a lot form the availability of ready to use, quality open-source packages. I recently read a post by Matt Legend Gemmell, which said:
As a self-employed software engineer, I understand the value of my time. I not only have an hourly rate, but I also grasp the value of getting ahead of a schedule, or being able to meet an aggressive schedule without having to compromise functionality or vision. The idea of paying others for quality source code is something I find very easy to accept and understand.
I heartily agree with this statement. Any custom open-source project can benefit form shorter time-to-market and reduced development time and cost. If the costs can be transferred to the client, then it’s a win-win situation – you can price more aggressively without losing income, which means you can do more projects in a shorter time span while focusing on the unique problems each project presents.
Even when you have to take the cost upon yourself, the investment may be worth it. If you’ve spotted a component that fits a recurring need or solves a troublesome problem and is already very mature, the benefits of getting it even for a fee are very tangible.
Commercial open-source in the wild
You’ve heard of WordPress, right? this blog runs on it. WordPress is a free open-source blogging platform for PHP, possibly the most popular one at that. WordPress’ creators, Automattic, don’t make a cent selling WordPress (at least not officially). They do offer some additional premium services. Selling services using open-source products is a common strategy to monetize open-source develpoment.
WordPress has also spawned a separate mini-economy – for WordPress plug-ins. The premium plug-in market for wordpress is an incredibly prospering market. More marketplaces for wordpress plug-ins pop up daily, and several of those seem to be making excellent business.
Commercial wordpress plug-ins often add functionality outside of the scope of normal plug-ins. Experienced developers can make the effort to create those, because they are counting on making some sort of living from it. It’s a symbiotic relationship – add commercial open-source code on top of a free open-source platform to make the end product more capable while sustaining all parties involved.
The “freemium” model
Some open-source products take a different approach by offering the base product for free and sell premium versions under a commercial license. Famous cases include MySQL – which offers a community edition for free and several enterprise editions under a commercial license, and Magento which does the same. We recommend freemium pricing in our pricing guide as a good strategy to create demand for packages.
Where we fit in – distribution
I have shown a couple of examples of accepted and working business models for open-source development. Our concept for Binpress is to facilitate the distribution of high quality open-source packages. The goal is to make the open-source industry stronger by providing another a complementary set of packages on top of existing open-source stacks.
We want to create an incentive for professional developers to allocate some of the time they spend on paid development to create and contribute open-source packages to the community. We do this by providing a platform for distribution of commercial open-source products – covering the marketing aspects, generating traffic and bringing in customers, taking care of the legal aspects and offering business advice to developers.
When more options are available when using an open source stack, everybody wins – both the open-source community and commercially driven custom development projects.
If you disagree with anything I wrote in this article, please leave your opinion in the comments. I believe in an open conversation and want to hear what you have to say.