After the Fork: Financing Open Source Software

One of the key moments in the history of free software was the rise of companies based around open source. After the first wave of startups based around offering distros and support for them - Red Hat being perhaps the most famous and successful example - there followed a second wave of companies offering open source versions of key enterprise software, many of them described in the early posts of this blog.

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One of the key moments in the history of free software was the rise of companies based around open source. After the first wave of startups based around offering distros and support for them - Red Hat being perhaps the most famous and successful example - there followed a second wave of companies offering open source versions of key enterprise software, many of them described in the early posts of this blog.

But things have moved on. Nowadays, open source is fast becoming the standard for business software, apart from a few old dinosaurs moaning about the meteorites. However, with that maturing of the marketplace, it is inevitable that some early open-source companies have changed. For example, a post from SugarCRM earlier this year entitled "SugarCRM in the Next 10 Years" revealed that the open source version would be available, and supported until 2015, but no longer actively developed:

On the availability topic. Sugar Community Edition (CE) is absolutely available for download today and will be indefinitely into the future. As an open source product, it never goes away. You will always find the SugarCRM project on SourceForge.net and will always be able to download the product from there.

On the support topic. SugarCRM Inc. will continue to support and maintain Sugar Community Edition v6.5 through it’s full life cycle along with all other Sugar 6.5 editions. We are expecting to support and issue maintenance releases to v6.5 through summer 2015 when v6.5 hits it end-of-support period. As of this post, the sixteenth patch to v6.5 (v6.5.16) is the most current maintenance patch of Sugar Community Edition. And we will continue to distribute Sugar Community Edition from SourceForge.net indefinitely, even after the support period ends.

The post rightly says: "As an open source product, it never goes away ". But it's even better than that: if the original developers decide not to continue work on their code, someone else can pick it up and bring out new versions. And that is exactly what is happening here with the SuiteCRM fork of SugarCRM. Nothing very radical in that - it's happened several times before, most notably with the Joomla fork of Mambo - but what's interesting is how the company behind this, SalesAgility, hopes to fund future work. Using an option that simply wasn't available a few years ago, SalesAgility is turning to Kickstarter:

On October 1st, SalesAgility, authors of SuiteCRM, the open source Customer Relationship Management project, launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise £200,000 to accelerate the build of the next release of the product (SuiteCRM 8) and to transfer the code and governance into a not-for-profit foundation.

Specifically, here's the aim:

We're going to make 100 enhancements to SuiteCRM in 18 months. Your funding will make that possible. We can dedicate a bigger team full-time to building SuiteCRM and we'll do monthly releases of new functionality so you can start enjoying the new features very quickly. Some changes are massive (responsive themes) and some are less complex but just plain sensible (threaded task discussions).

Those enhancements will all be released under the Affero GPL licence. But it's not just about the code:

We're going to put all the code and project governance into a not-for-profit foundation. This is how all the best open source projects are organised. We want everyone to know that SuiteCRM is and always will be open source. There will be no going back, no retreat, no paid-for versions. SuiteCRM is open source from top to bottom and always will be.

The SuiteCRM project will start raising money on Kickstarter from 1 October, so it's not yet clear how things will go. But I think the move is both laudable in its desire to take the open-source code forwards by putting it on a firm footing through the creation of a not-for-profit foundation, and potentially important as a template for future forks. Taking open source code and forking it was always the easy part; the hard bit was finding the funds to make it sustainable. For the sake of the future of open source business software, let's hope the SuiteCRM Kickstarter approach works.

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