OpenX: the Unknown Variable


The open source company OpenX, which is behind the free ad server of the same name, is something of a mysterious beast.

It's not that well known, even though it's one of the few open source companies that was founded in the UK. Things have not been helped by the fact that it has gone through so many names changes - phpAds, phpAdsNew, MaxMediaManager, Openads – that it's been hard to keep up.

It's also something of wonder that it operates in a market where the main competitor is Google – and yet survives. And finally, there is the issue of why on earth it choose to drop that perfectly clear and memorable Openads moniker for the current name, OpenX, which sounds more like some kind of men's deodorant.

Fortunately, I was able to pose these and other questions to OpenX's current boss, Tim Cadogan, a former Yahoo (who must now be thanking his lucky stars for his prescient earlier move out of that struggling company).

Perhaps the easiest of the above points to answer is how OpenX has managed to survive in the presence of Google. First and foremost, it's because OpenX is free software, released under the GNU GPL; as such, it offers the perfect alternative to Google – a company that becomes more Microsoft-like every day.

There aren't even any “commercial” versions from OpenX that cost money: everything is completely free. That extends (mostly) to OpenX's new hosted offering:

No download or installation required

OpenX Hosted beta is the same professional ad management tool used to control the advertising on over 100,000 websites around the world, only hosted on our hardware.

Free, up to 25 million ad impressions each month

Take full advantage of OpenX Hosted to rotate ads and manage your ad space for free if you're serving up to 25 million ad impressions each month.

Interestingly, Cadogan said that one reason OpenX was able to offer its hosted version on such generous terms was the increasing availability and maturity of on-demand cloud computing offerings (OpenX is using Amazon's service among others for this).

This simply abstracts all the messy backend infrastructure, reduce up-front and running costs, and lets companies concentrate on the software side. Moreover, as the cloud computing utility sector becomes more competitive, companies like OpenX are able to spread their deployment across many providers, minimising the dangers of depending on just one.

Alongside the hosted version of OpenX, the company has started up something called OpenX Market:

The Market is a place where publishers can easily make their advertising space available to large numbers of buyers (including ad networks and agencies). Those buyers get the opportunity to bid for each impression, with the highest bidder displaying their ad if their bid beats a floor price set by the publisher.

OpenX Market is more than just a logical extension of OpenX's current offerings: it's a hint of things to come. It also goes some way to explaining the studiedly neutral “OpenX” name. As Cadogan explained to me, his company wants to move beyond just supporting ads on Web sites to supplying more general products and services in the Web publishing space. One obvious area is analytics – providing publishers with more information about how their ads are working, and OpenX is already active here.

The good news is that it is staying true to its open source roots by working with the Piwik project – which, to my shame, I'd not come across before:

Piwik is a downloadable, open source (GPL licensed) web analytics software, providing you with detailed reports on your website visitors: the search engines and keywords they used, the language they speak, your popular pages… and so much more.

Piwik aims to be an open source alternative to Google Analytics.

Piwik is a PHP MySQL software that you download and install on your own webserver. At the end of the 5 minutes installation process, you will be given a Javascript tag: simply copy and paste this tag on websites you wish to track (or use an existing plugin to do it automatically for you).

It's good to see open source players working together to provide users with an alternative in a market that is becoming even more important against the backdrop of the economic downturn. It's good, too, to see a free software company that is ambitious, but not to the point where it might sacrifice the principles that made it such a success in the first place. My only concern is that it might change its name again....

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