Matthew Aslett, from the consulting firm “The 451 Group” authored a report entitled “Open Source is not a Business Model.” One of the key conclusions of the report was that 'open source' is a business strategy or tactic, not a business model.
Quite often the number of business models, strategies, or tactics related to the development and deployment of open source solutions depends on the profit motive driving particular individuals and organizations. For example, consider the following. There are:
- non-profit organizations or communities that are not interested in making huge profits from their free and open source software (FOSS) solutions, but are more interested in simply creating and distributing high quality, free software and solutions that will be of benefit to as many people as possible.
- then there are those individual or organizations that want to profit from the development, distribution, and retail sales associated with various open source products and commercial add-on modules they have created and released using somewhat restrictive licenses; and
- there are also numerous individuals or organizations that want to make a living and generate profits by offering a wide range of services in support of the open source solutions, e.g. installation, training, maintenance.
Over the past decade, numerous entrepreneurial individuals and organizations have tackled the idea of how to make money out of open source software. The idea that the only way of generating revenue from open source software is by providing support services - has become outdated.
There are now a wide variety of business strategies, tactics, or business models being employed by to generate revenue from open source software. For example:
- Many non-profit organizations obtain funding to support the development and distribution of their free and open source software (FOSS) solution from membership dues, subscription fees, donations, and/or grants.
- Many for profit organizations are paid for producing enhanced professional or enterprise versions of an open source product governed by very restrictive licenses. They may also offer add-on modules or bundle the open source software within other hardware and software products they offer.
- Other for profit organizations charge for a wide range of services, e.g. consulting, installation, documentation, training, system enhancements, software maintenance & patches.
Many other innovative companies are emerging and learning how to profit from the open source marketplace, e.g. news organizations, marketing firms, hosting, software-as-a-service (SAAS), open hardware, etc. In addition, there are now organizations providing products and services related to open source hardware, open access publications, open data solutions, and more.
Other Examples of Alternative 'Open Source' Business Models
The following is a list of some of the more common alternative forms of open source business models repeatedly described in numerous published articles:
Software Support Business Model
In this model, companies sell certified distributions of open source software along with a range of after-sale professional technical support services. Some companies provide immediate access to the latest patched and certified version of the software to their paying customers only.
Software Services Business Model
In this model, a company may sell installation, maintenance, documentation, and training services for the open source software.
Software as a Service (SaaS) Model
In a SaaS model, customers pay for the hosting, streaming, and delivery of the open source software solution on a managed set of servers offering cloud-based services.
Ad Ware Business Model
This is a variation on the SaaS model. The user doesn't pay anything for use of the open source solution; the advertiser pays instead, e.g. Google, ZDNet.
Under this model, a variety of consulting services are offered by a company. For example, a company may provide a range of management consulting, implementation, and training services related to the use of open source solutions by specific domains, e.g. healthcare, finance, manufacturing.
Proprietary Software Model
In this model, a company offers a more closed, proprietary licensed version of a similar open source software solution. This protects them against some of the risks associated with developing products that use open source GPL licensed software.
CAUTION: Under an open source GPL licensing, if the open source software is linked to your company's proprietary software, the proprietary software also becomes open source. Consumers buy commercial friendly open source licensed software to avoid this potential problem.
Premium Software Model
In this model, a company sells premium commercial software add-on modules or applications in conjunction with the open source software product, often packaging both together, e.g. Jaspersoft.
Dual Licensing Model
This is a variation of the proprietary software business models just described. A company may release the code they own under both a standard commercial license, as well as an Open Source License. Using this approach, customers can be attracted to a no-cost and open-source edition, then later agree to acquire a more robust, multi-user commercial enterprise edition.
There is a related, hybrid model in which a vendor forks a non-copyleft software project then adds closed-source additions to it and sells the resulting software. After a fixed time period, the company may release the patches or enhancements back upstream under the same open source license as the rest of the codebase.
Platform Integration Services
With the introduction of service-oriented architecture, many companies no longer buy software from one particular vendor. They build software using components from different vendors and integrate them to best meet their unique business needs. There are numerous risks and issues that need to be considered when mixing and matching open source with proprietary products.
Hardware Integration Model
In this model, hardware companies may bundle open source software into their product. The software is free, you just buy the box it runs in., e.g. Android smartphones. This may allow the hardware company to significantly lower the cost of their products.
Indirect Services & Accessories
Companies may choose to provide indirect services and accessories for open source systems. This may include providing news and information, selling books, marketing, training materials, hardware accessories, t-shirts, e.g. O'Reilly Associates, Open Health News.
Non-Profit Business Models
Many non-profit organizations are not interested in making huge profits from their free and open source software (FOSS) solutions, but are interested in simply creating and distributing high quality, free software and solutions that will be of benefit to as many people as possible. However, they often need some level of funding to support their efforts.
Many open source software projects are supported by a "sugar daddy", e.g. Firefox has Google; Eclipse has IBM; and VistA has the VA. Some establish foundations that require membership fees. Some pursue charitable grants or simply ask for donations to support their work. Sometimes the user community may come together and pool their resources to help develop a desired feature or functionality.
A growing number of programmers in the open source software community offer their services as independent contractors to develop, install, maintain, or enhance open source software for others. You'll run across many of them on SourceForge, GitHub, or particular community web sites, e.g. Drupal, Wordpress.
Public Domain Model
Governments or other non-governmental organizations may develop software internally or hire a contractor for custom in-house modifications to software, then release that code under an open-source license.
Defensive Business Model/Strategy
Some companies may choose to pursue an open source business strategy or model to gain access to innovative new ideas, software code, or to reduce software development costs and timeframes. It also allows them to take a portion of market share for services and support for popular open source solutions. It may also allow them to join a community and beak a monopolistic hold a company may have on a particular area, e.g. web browsers, server software, etc.
Finally, in putting together this feature article, I ran across over 80 other open source business models or strategies related to forming partnerships with other companies; creating franchised services and solutions, and much more. Many are simply a variation on the models described above. If you have found a truly new and unique business model that you're willing to share with us, please send us a short write up or description of the model.
Remember, a company doesn't have to use just one business model. They can mix-and-match models as they see fit, moving to a more profitable model as circumstances change.
The list of successful 'open source' organizations offering high quality software products, publications, projects, and services continues to grow. Let us know about other major open source 'business models' that we may have missed.