The Open Source Innovation Backbone is SaaSy

Riding open source innovation, when your contributions to it are scant, is not a good deal for your fellow contributors.

In response to my piece yesterday, my Italian friend Roberto Galoppini referenced a piece he did last August called the Open Source Innovation Backbone.

Packaged software companies may just use open source to build a common base on which they can innovate. Or they may copy a proprietary product, competing against it together in order to drive out a competitor's monopoly profits.

But in recounting the story of a start-up now called NowPublic, Roberto also revealed something important about where open source tends to innovate.

Software as a Service (SaaS).

Facebook and Twitter both represent good examples of this. They are busy these days trying to show their open source bonafides. They are sharing code and encouraging contributions to make their services better, hoping to ride the wave of open source innovation.

This is possible because Facebook and Twitter, like Google, operate as SaaS companies. You pay for these resources by tolerating advertising on them (or, in the case of Twitter, waiting for the ads to show up). You don't pay cash, but Pulitzer and Hearst taught us over a century ago that attention is as good as gold.

SaaS lives in what you might call a copyleft loophole. It's a loophole the Affero license was designed to close. Google has explicitly rejected Affero, preferring the Apache licenses. Twitter and Facebook don't use Affero, either.

When your contribution to a project is outsized to that of the community, as Google's usually is, I think this is appropriate. Some pigs really are more equal than others, and if you're doing 98% of the work (or more) you deserve that extra protection.

But what about smaller projects? What about start-ups? Riding open source innovation, when your contributions to it are scant, is not a good deal for your fellow contributors.

It may that the drum-banging and table-pounding of Facebook and Twitter is meant to cover up this fact. Marketing in this case is taking the place of climbing down the open source incline.  It may work.

Or they could join the Affero club.

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