Who needs a business plan?

Who needs a business plan?

Summary: One of the questions that is being asked regularly is "what is the business plan for open source?" This has always struck me as odd, as it is akin to asking "what is the business plan for punk rock?

TOPICS: Open Source

One of the questions that is being asked regularly is "what is the business plan for open source?" This has always struck me as odd, as it is akin to asking "what is the business plan for punk rock?" or "what is the business plan for modern art?" Open source projects may need business plans, companies that utilize open source certainly do -- but the concept of open source itself does not.

It's always seemed a bit silly to try to lump the entire open source development ecosystem in together in that way, because you simply can't apply the same approach to every project -- even if you assume that every project is motivated by some kind of commercial success, which would be a mistake in and of itself.

I was thinking about that when reading Andy Oram's "The Commons Doesn't Have a Business Plan." Oram discusses the ways that "business imperatives, imprudently pursued, can weaken the commons, that fertile field from which the most promising future businesses will emerge." Oram discusses how open source fits in with the concept of a public commons, and recent developments that threaten the intellectual commons.

Could our intellectual heritage suffer a "tragedy of the commons," as described by Garrett Hardin when he introduced that term in 1968? What Hardin described was a degradation or exhaustion of the commons through overuse. Clearly, there can be no tragedy of the intellectual commons in this sense, because the commons of ideas provides enough for every taker. Rather, two different tragedies threaten it.

The threat most resembling the classic tragedy is a fencing off of the commons, a predatory and premature division of its goods among private owners. This indeed can starve the commons. The trend worries librarians, researchers, creative artists, and others responsible for tending the commons of ideas.

I'm kind of surprised that Oram doesn't list patents as an example of "fencing off the commons," but he does touch on extensions to copyright, restrictions on making personal copies of movies and music, and use of intellectual property to squelch public debate. (Specifically in reference to Cisco's heavy-handed tactics last week.)

This is definitely a topic that needs discussion. On the one hand, there's the desire to "monetize" everything under the sun. On the other, there's the need for a "commons" of intellectual property that is not owned by anyone, that can be used by anyone to create new works -- possibly for commercial gain, or for the good of society, or just because it's fun. Right now, the public interest and preservation of the commons, is taking a backseat to monetization. This may be good news for a handful of companies and individuals, but it's bad news for the rest of us.

Topic: Open Source

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  • and in a related story...

    monsanto patents pigs, not the genetic engineering, the offspring. That pig can't beget another pig without a payment to monsanto, so be careful with that genetically engineered offspring of your own, since you may be selling your progeny into slavery.
  • Money makes the world go around

    and makes Anton upset about OSS killing the software developer "commons".

    Linux and OSS are thriving because people are used to NOT PAYING FOR SOFTWARE. These "pirates" feel MUCH better using Linux/OSS for free than with pirating Windoze stuff. The more you fence off the commons (M$ cracking down on freeloaders), the more people leave/migrate to another commons. So the world-wide computer user community commons (i.e. M$ users) loses members to the open source commons. Trying to monitize the open source commons will lead to another mass migration - maybe "pay you to use" computer commons . . .
    Roger Ramjet
    • Roger, there has long been a software commons.

      Think of the BSDs for example.

      The people who work on the software are funded by academic institutions or other organizations interested in general advancement rather than money. The work is not-for-profit, proof of concept. Others can take the successes and turn them into profit making products.

      Not even Microsoft has a problem with this type of open source.

      What we're looking at now is something different.

      This is a movement whose goal is to reduce employment and salaries in some if not all aspects of the creation of software. If it works, it hurts.

      The fun(?) part is what's happened to that movement.

      First, leadership was taken over by for profit companies selling other goods (like hardware) and services. They contribute much if not all of the efforts important to them in order to make money off cheap software.

      The people who began opposed to large corporations sold out to large corporations in return for research and credibility.
      They justified this to themselves by saying they were opposing some large corporations, but not others.
      Their efforts ended by harming those working on Unix, who are actually more sympathetic, and not (much) Microsoft, the company they saw as target #1.

      Then other companies like RedHat tried to make money on their own versions of the open source software. The cloners, philosophical purists opposed to profits, assure that RedHat, etc. do not make very much money, but they can still eke out some profits.
      These companies, too, are attacking the bases of the open source movement, but are still behaving publicly as if they supported a movement hostile to them. The need for free labor can do that companies.

      Microsoft now looks out at the open source realm, and sees a series of companies either not overly dedicated or trying to make a profit in a near-hostile environment. This is a competitive arrangement they can live with.

      What's the business plan for open source?

      Make money from it any way you can without killing the golden goose of labor you'd otherwise have to pay for.

      Thwe problem is, this gold doesn't all come from thin air. Some of it is taken from the people who would have been paid to produce the same software for money. Much to the joy of the philosophers of the movement, these people at least are suffering.

      Small consolation for those who would have destroyed sold software, but the best they can get.
      Anton Philidor
      • Typo fix.

        The sentence should read:

        The people who began opposed to large corporations sold out to large corporations in return for - resources - and credibility.
        Anton Philidor
      • Open source paradox

        What you say sounds right. I haven't experienced this myself. I've stayed out of the open source mania, recognizing it for what it is.

        I remember reading an editorial a few years ago, I think here on ZDNet, that sounded right to me. It basically said that while there may be many good quality contributions to OSS now, as the economy gets better, OSS will experience a brain drain as former OSS developers leave it for greener (as in "money") pastures, working on commercial software development. Maybe that hasn't started happening yet, but I think it will someday. This won't mean the end of OSS by any means. It'll just go kind of dormant for a while, until the next tech downturn, when there'll be another great influx of talented folks who are willing to express their creativity for free.
        Mark Miller
  • I think what's meant here is...

    I don't think the question about "Does Open Source have a business plan?" is so silly. True, not every open source project *must* have a business plan. A lot of people start these things for the heck of it, I'm sure. But as we've seen over the last few years, investors are getting in on open source projects. These clearly need a business plan since investors expect a return on their investment. The bottom line matters in these cases. How that's achieved probably isn't. If the companies can make a profit on service vs. product sales, so much the better for them.
    Mark Miller
    • Absolutely

      Investors need a business plan - no argument there. But, the "business plan" discussion is often brought up in regards to open source as a movement - and that's silly, because you can't have a business plan for something that diffused, where some projects are obviously of enterprise-quality and have a clear roadmap and goals (think Apache) and other projects are simply done for personal satisfaction, or at least start off that way.

      It would also be next to impossible to get the entire open source community to follow a business plan, even if someone came up with one. It's silly to imagine that any business plan could or would unite all the groups that work on open source -- they don't even agree on a license. But it's not silly to imagine the KDE team, for example, following a "business" plan for development of the project.
  • Project Plan ~= Business Plan

    Since free software does not directly generate revenue, (though products produced with it certainly do), free software often is used in products, and people often make plans around what they intend to do and when.

    Once a project goes past the conceptual, "Wow, I wonder if anyone else likes this idea" stage, as soon as a group of people get together, it makes sense to say, "Hey, I can devote five hours a week to this project, How should I best spend those five hours?"

    A project plan, even a simple one, provides a way to state what you intend to do, when you intend to do it, what you intend to accomplish, and what resources you have to accomplish it with. If any of the conditions change, you can change the project plan and get an idea of how it affects schedules.

    I know that people don't like to get pinned down that way. However, the more you know, the more you can plan.