Afraid of open core lock-in? The alternative could be worse

Why the threat of lock-in needs to be balanced against the danger of selecting a vendor that can't fund future product evolution.

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A debate has been raging over the popular open core business model that many open source vendors are using today. Opponents caution buyers from using open core products because of a bait-and-switch that will lock consumers into a closed source product. Proponents of the open core model argue that it balances the rights of users with the revenue aspirations of vendors.

That there is no one true open source business model that vendors use should come as no surprise to InfoWorld readers - support subscriptions, professional services, dual licensing, and open core are but a few of the adopted business models. It's important to recognize that the business model employed by an open source vendor has a direct impact on your rights and freedoms as a customer.

As little as five years ago, the support subscription business model was the de facto choice for new open source vendors. In this model, there was only one version of the product, with equivalent features and functions, available to all users. Paying users could get professional support for the product. But customers realized quickly that they could run the product without support, while addressing their support issues themselves or through community forums. As a result, 15 percent of paying support subscription customers decided not to renew their support subscriptions. This, of course, had an impact on both paying and nonpaying customers, because it reduced the revenue available for further product development.

The open core business model grew in popularity as way to address the lack of a sustained revenue caused by the failure of the support business model. The open core model relies on a core product released under an open source license. The vendor also creates and sells an extended version - often with enterprise features, additional testing, and integration -- under a commercial, not open source, license on a subscription basis. The license or contractual terms typically prevent a company from continuing to use the product if it stops paying the subscription. In many cases, the source code for the commercial product is also not made available (unlike an open souce product).

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