Thursday, October 17, 2013

FOSS Doesn't Care if You are a Capitalist

by Dietrich Schmitz

Venture Capitalists and Start-Ups

We see new announcements on Indiegogo daily seeking funding to seed a new software widget, platform, or idea which has potential for development but lacks financial resources to undertake full-scale development.  Being in FOSS development isn't always what it is cracked up to be, especially if you expect to make a living at it.

While Venture Capital (VC) is to be had, it comes at a cost -- VCs usually won't part with their money without some kind of 'consideration'.  That's where the VC takes control of your project and wants majority stock in the company they underwrite and they want direct input into how a concept should be developed into the ultimate product or service.  There is where FOSS can take a U-turn as many projects depend on upstream code and the terms of licensing dictate how the code can or cannot be used and/or changed.

To that end, prospective entrepreneurs employ various business strategies including proprietary licensing schemes so as to protect their 'return on investment' to recover research and development expense, by enforcing company-owned software copyrights and patents.

Software as a Service

Schemes to protect investment also include marketing a software application as an on-line service where prospective customers subscribe to use such services.  SaaS has become popular because vendors can provide the service without exposing the source code (at least key parts of it) which would give away their technology advantage to competing vendors.

Black Holes

The biggest of all software vendors today is Google.  As they grow, they routinely buy up small start-up companies, absorbing them like a black hole, and fold the technology into their expanding universe of software offerings.  We've seen this repeat over and over, Android, Blogger, QuickOffice, all have been absorbed and now are part of the Google software landscape, to name just a few start-ups.

FOSS not Beholding to Anybody

So where does FOSS fit in?  It would seem that community developed software isn't even beholding to corporate interests.  It isn't.

No, FOSS is only beholding to the interests of its developers who voluntarily nuture and cultivate it like a devoted gardener would to their plants.  And, in the absence of that nurturing spirit, FOSS can and often does die off if not maintained.  This is an inherent risk of giving away source code under the software licensing terms of GPLv2.  It becomes very usable, very shareable, only if there is incentive to actively maintain the code base.

Often, young enthusiastic developers devote their time for a year or so and then for various reasons move on.  At that point, if there isn't another maintainer, the FOSS code will whither and die if not maintained.

On the other hand, paid developers on the Capitalist side are typically hired as employees of corporations who develop proprietary code and in some cases open source software but the primary force at work is either a subscription service or licensing cost model to use said software.  Profit seeking is what drives Capitalism.

Because there isn't a broad enough interest by Venture Capitalists to develop FOSS, the majority of development today is dominated by proprietary software created by Microsoft and Apple and their third-party partnering software vendors.  And, many start-ups which begin with the seed of an an idea eventually become absorbed into the proprietary world as a requirement for VC investment.

It's simple enough to develop code and not provide source code to ensure that the technology investment cost is protected by recurring revenue on licensing of software.  VCs understand and adopt a proprietary model of code development most often still, despite the disadvantages that it places on users who cannot enjoy the inherent security benefits of transparency.  Faith must be placed in the software vendor's reputation, abilities and perceived value of purchasing a proprietary software license.  The restrictions placed on use of software vary but the benefits of FOSS do not apply and most often one must purchase another software license to use the same software on another computer, unlike FOSS.

It's Still a Proprietary World

So, while the attraction to FOSS by virtue of its transparency, ability to freely share and change source code are important, large scale deployment of PC software still hasn't spread to the scale of the Microsoft Windows and Apple OSX business world installed base.

True, Red Hat have extended their presence into the Enterprise, but that process hasn't moved along quickly enough as many software development concerns still rely on the proprietary model to drive sales and profits verses the subscription-based model used by Red Hat.

The above notwithstanding, FOSS continues to grow, slowly, pragmatically and spread in popularity. Take it, use it, as you wish, but you must put back changes to the source code you plan to use in any commercial endeavor so that future users can benefit from it.

If that's a problem for you Venture Capitalists, well, FOSS doesn't really much care.

-- Dietrich
Enhanced by Zemanta


Post a Comment