Rotten to the (Open) Core?

2:01 pm freesoftware, General

Open core, Open core,  more Open core… the debate goes on and on, with Monty the latest to weigh in.

When you get down to it this is a fight over branding – which is why the issue is so important to the OSI folks (who are all about the brand). I don’t actually care that much how SugarCRM, Jahia, Alfresco et al make the software they sell to their customers. As a customer I’m asking a whole different set of questions to “is this product open source?” I want to know how good the service and support is, how good the product is, and above all, does it solve the problem I have at a price point I’m comfortable with. The license doesn’t enter into consideration.

So if that’s the case (and I believe it is), why the fighting? Because of the Open Source brand, and all the warm-and-fuzzies that procures. “Open solutions” are the flavour of the decade, and as a small ISV building a global brand, being known as Open Source is a positive marketing attribute. The only problem is that the warm-and-fuzzies implied by Open source – freedom to change supplier or improve the software, freedom to try the software before purchasing, the existence of a diverse community of people with knowledge, skills and willingness to help a user in difficulty – don’s exist in the Open Core world. The problem is that for the most part, the Open Core which you can obtain under the OSI-approved license is not that useful.

Yesterday on Twitter, I said “Open Core is annoying because the “open core” bit is pretty much useless. It doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin.”

Now, I wasn’t expecting this to be particularly controversial, but I got some push-back on this. Dan Fabulich replied “Ridiculous. Like the free version of MySQL is useless?” Which leads me to think of Inigo Montoya on the top of the Cliffs on MoherInsanity turning to Vizzini and saying “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

With all this talk of Open Core, clearly some confusion has crept in. Perhaps it’s on my part. So allow me to elaborate what I understand by “Open Core”.

First, companies can’t be Open Core. Products are Open Core. So whereas Monty considers that from 2006 on, MySQL was not an “Open Source company”, I would contend that MySQL Server has always been, and continues to be, Free Software, and an Open Source product. That is, not Open Core.

Open Core for me means you provide a free software product, improve it, and don’t release the improvements under the free software licence. In my mind, Mac OS X is not “Open Core” just because it’s based on the NetBSD kernel, it is proprietary software.

Perhaps it would be useful to give some examples of what is Open Core:

  • Jahia is Open Core – significant features and stabilisation work are present in the Enterprise Edition are not available at all in the Community Edition
  • SugarCRM is obviously Open Core. Key features related to reporting, workflow, administration and more are only present in the commercial editions
  • JasperSoft BI Suite is Open Core. Lots of useful features are only available to people buying the product.

The key here is that support contracts and extra features are only available if you also pay licensing fees. To take the oft-cited example of InnoDB hot back-up tool for MySQL, you can purchase this and use it with the GPL licensed MySQL Server.

This is why I say that Open Core products “don’t do exactly what it says on the tin” – the features you see advertised on the project’s website are not available to you along with software freedom.

I have talked to companies who deliberately avoid adding “spit & polish” to the community edition to encourage people to trade up for things like better documentation, attractive templates and easy installation – and don’t provide an easy way for the community edition users to share their own work. Other products have an open source engine that doesn’t do much except sit there, and all useful functionality is available as paid modules. Yes, a persistent, skilled, patient developer can take the Open Source version of the product and make it do something useful. For the most part, however, if you want to actually use the software without becoming an expert in its internals, you’ll need some of the commercial upgrades.

There is another name for this which is even more pejorative, Crippleware. Deliberately hobbled software. And that’s what I think gets people riled up – if you’re releasing something as free software, then there should at least be the pretence that you are giving the community the opportunity to fend for itself – even if that is by providing an “unofficial” git tree where the community can code up GPL features competing with your commercial offering, or a nice forum for people to share templates, themes and extensions and fend for themselves. But what gets people riled is hearing a company call themselves “an Open Source company” when most of the users of their “open source” product do not have software freedom. It’s disingenuous, and it is indeed brand dilution.

That said, let me repeat – I have no problem with companies doing this. I have no problem with them advertising their GPL-licensed stuff as Open Source. I would just like to see more of these companies providing a little bit of independence and autonomy to their user community. But then, that’s potentially not in their long-term interest – even if it is difficult to imagine a situation where the community-maintained version outstrips the “Enterprise” edition in features and stability.

18 Responses

  1. Neary Consulting » Rotten to the (Open) Core? Says:

    […] Reposted from my personal blog […]

  2. Juanjo Says:

    I’m starting to think that all this open core debate depends on your side: business or user.

    Let me refer to a post where I talk about a very insightful Slashdot comment about user point of view on open core:

    I really think that open core is too vague when you can have a model like MySQL (that it’s quite OK regarding users), and a model like SugarCRM or Alfresco (as in ‘crippleware’, no offense intended).

    In fact, as an open source professional, I’ve seen some of my customers fall into the licensed version of certain product after the disappointment on the open source version, and the one who lost out was the open source “brand” for that customer.

    I mean, I’ve never seen a customer get a Red Hat subscription as result of disappointment, have you?

  3. Benjamin Otte Says:

    The question this boild down to is: Does the Open Source version exist because it’s a nice selling point or does it exist because someone believes in the values of Free Software?

  4. David Rysdam Says:

    The license doesn’t enter into consideration.

    Seems a little short-sighted. The price is a one-time cost, the license is forever.

  5. Jack Says:


    You seem confuse about what “open core” is.

    Red Hat products or business model is not “open core”!

    “In fact, as an open source professional”

    Per your writing I doubt you are!

  6. Dave Neary Says:

    @Jack: I think that’s the point Juanjo is making. With “Open Core” people buy commercial licences because they’re disappointed with the free offering, but Juanjo has never seen anyone get a RH subscription because they were disappointed with the free stuff – they get it because it offers additional value for them.

  7. 2300 Says:

    IMO Mac OS X is actually Open Core: Darwin is the core, and it’s Open Source.

  8. Dave Neary Says:

    Therein lies the rub – I disagree. Because there is nothing I can get as free software from Apple that will make a useful system.

    I would argue that Maemo is Open Core – a functional, but fairly useless, core OS, with a variety of proprietary bits which make it a usable system for phones.

    Where can I download the open source/free software Mac OS X core OS?

  9. Crippleware = OpenCore « Says:

    […] This blogpost sums it up rather nicely: […]

  10. Tweets that mention Safe as Milk » Blog Archive » Rotten to the (Open) Core? -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Open Source Hero, Zuissi. Zuissi said: Planet Gnome: Dave Neary: Rotten to the (Open) Core?: Open core, Open core,  more Open core… the debate goes on an… […]

  11. Juanjo Says:

    Thanks Dave! That’s what I meant!

    Jack, sometimes my English could be better. Excuse me if I confused you 😉

  12. job Says:

    “Open Core” is a free hardware project. There is nothing proprietary about it, just Google it. Stop trying to overload the term with bad connotations, that’s just mean to the open cores people.

  13. Symphonious » Open Core, Open Development and Co-location Says:

    […] or tools provided so long as the open source product can stand alone and be useful and effective. Dave Neary hits on what I think is a key warning sign that a product is using a damaging open-core […]

  14. Dave Neary Says:

    You’re right David. What I should have said is “The license is not a primary concern” or something along those lines. “Does it do a job I need done, at a price I’m willing to pay?” is question one, question two is “what support options exist?” and third (or lower) is “Do I have the source code?”


  15. Links: OSI Finds Its Spine, ‘Open’ Core Called Out | Techrights Says:

    […] Rotten to the (Open) Core? Open core, Open core, more Open core… the debate goes on and on, with Monty the latest to weigh in. […]

  16. r_a_trip Says:

    For an end user with serious needs, Open Core is just a waste of time. It is in essence the equivalent of windows shareware.

    It is a marketing trick. Open Core is a free advertisement for proprietary products. What use is the free plumbing, if you can only use it properly with rented, high cost, proprietary fixtures?

    Well, what did we expect? Making a level playing field palatable to business in the form of Open Source, severely weakening the philosophy of Free Software, was a journey on the slippery slope. The culmination of which is attaching a flimsy air of openness to thoroughly closed products.

  17. Johann Tienhaara Says:

    Nice post as always Dave.

    I do disagree with your point, though I think you did hit on the crux of the problem along the way.

    In my humble opinion an “open core” or “crippleware” or what have you can theoretically be useful. The most successful and widely-used open source projects are very similar to “cores”: the Linux kernel, OpenGL, GNOME, glib. They don’t provide anything useful to the end user. That’s up to application developers. And open source application developers can develop for “cores” just as readily as proprietary developers.

    However this is the bit where I think you hit the nail on the head:

    “…the features you see advertised on the project’s website are not available to you along with software freedom.”

    That’s where I believe most of the user frustration comes from.

    I believe it is also the reason why the examples you mentioned don’t have thriving developer communities outside the proprietary walls: because open source developers don’t like being misled by marketing schlock.

    Having to travel down several levels of “this is the greatest product in the world” rubbish just to find out what the open source version provides is poor form.

    Providing 2 websites — one cathedral full of self-promotion to encourage revenue, the other an open bazaar with support for the “core” to encourage the open source community — should not be overly taxing for these “open core” providers.

    And it might even bolster their revenue streams, if open source developers help make their core products more flexible, better tested, better documented, more widely localised, and generally more useful.

    So in a nutshell, I don’t see why the “open core” or “crippleware” concept wouldn’t work for everyone — if the companies releasing these products could only learn to be “open” about more than just their core source code.


  18. Open Core; Open Source; Open Season | echo linux Says:

    […] so now that I understand a bit better what’s going on, what’s all the fuss about? Branding, says Dave Neary. When you get down to it this is a fight over branding – which is why the issue […]