Some Thoughts on Open Core


Why open core software is bad for the FOSS movement.

Nothing is inherently anti-business about Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). In fact, a number of different business models are built on top of FOSS. The best models are those that continue to further FOSS by internal code contributions and that advance the principles of Free Software in general. For instance, there's the support model, where a company develops free software but sells expert support for it.

Here, I'd like to talk a bit about one of the more problematic models out there, the open core model, because it's much more prevalent, and it creates some perverse incentives that run counter to Free Software principles.

If you haven't heard about it, the open core business model is one where a company develops free software (often a network service intended to be run on a server) and builds a base set of users and contributors of that free code base. Once there is a critical mass of features, the company then starts developing an "enterprise" version of the product that contains additional features aimed at corporate use. These enterprise features might include things like extra scalability, login features like LDAP/Active Directory support or Single Sign-On (SSO) or third-party integrations, or it might just be an overall improved version of the product with more code optimizations and speed.

Because such a company wants to charge customers to use the enterprise version, it creates a closed fork of the free software code base, or it might provide the additional proprietary features as modules so it has fewer problems with violating its free software license.

The first problem with the open core model is that on its face it doesn't further principles behind Free Software, because core developer time gets focused instead of writing and promoting proprietary software. Instead of promoting the importance of the freedoms that Free Software gives both users and developers, these companies often just use FOSS as a kind of freeware to get an initial base of users and as free crowdsourcing for software developers that develop the base product when the company is small and cash-strapped. As the company get more funding, it's then able to hire the most active community developers, so they then can stop working on the community edition and instead work full-time on the company's proprietary software.