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Corporate open source is more vulnerable

What the history of the last few years tells me is that the best home for an open source project is not a company, but a foundation.

Yahoo's move to offload Zimbra, combined with Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems, are reminders of a nasty truth supporters of corporate open source would rather not recognize.

Corporate open source is vulnerable open source.

That's because, with a few exceptions, open source has not been the money-spinner its boosters thought it would be. This should not be a surprise. Open source by its nature values other things beyond a vendor's bottom line.

Funny, when you eliminate distribution and marketing, and when you can't make people pay you for your product, your bottom line isn't going to be as robust as it might otherwise be. Yet this is not a sign of open source failure. It's a natural by-product of its success.

The money open source vendors aren't making is money that open source users can make. It's money saved on code, on systems, on development, money that can be used to do the work of the business. This is true whether the business in question is for-profit, a non-profit, or a government entity. The savings are real, and massive.

What is becoming clear, however, is that because open source values different forms of money, and different peoples' money, it's not such a great deal for vendors. That's one reason entrepreneurial types like Matt Asay are saying good things about Microsoft. Open source, it turns out, is not about them.

But open source code still needs a place to live. It needs a home and homes cost money.

What the history of the last few years tells me is that the best home for an open source project is not a company, but a foundation.

Within a foundation costs are shared, savings are shared, but members are free to deploy those savings as they see fit. Groups like the Linux Foundation, Mozilla, Apache and Eclipse move forward smartly, developers getting plenty of resources to keep working, while corporate-backed efforts sputter and flame out with every season.

But life inside a foundation is not like life inside a corporation. What corporate eyes may see as healthy competition foundation eyes may see as wasteful redundancy.

Take the two code bases maintained by Openoffice.org, for instance. Few outside the business know there are two code bases, one based on Sun's StarOffice, the other on IBM's Symphony.

In a competitive world this would keep both sides honest. In a foundation world the benefits are not so obvious. It's like having two separate offices within the same organization for Mozambiquan orphan relief. The orphans would do better with one.

These truths were not self-evident when the decade began, but they seem pretty obvious now. The question is what are we going to do about them?