Is Medsphere taking it back?

The Medsphere crisis could spell the end of enterprise open source applications.

Is Medsphere still an open source company, or is it trying to turn public domain software into something proprietary?

And can you run a company open source when the cost of making a sale is astronomical, but the price you must charge for support (to compete against do-it-yourself efforts) is relatively low?

Hard questions must be asked following Medsphere's suing its two founders, the Shreeve brothers (that's Scott Shreeve at right), and trying to take back its open source release by accusing those who downloaded it from Sourceforge of racketeering.

Fred Trotter of GPLMedicine first tried to work out a compromise alongside Eric Raymond. But now he's telling anyone who will listen that Medsphere has betrayed the community, and that current Medsphere CEO Ken Kizer knew of the Sourceforge release before it happened.

Kizer, meanwhile, issued an open letter last week, saying it was always the company's intention to release enhancements like billing software on a proprietary basis. Scott Steve Shreeve has released a lengthy reply on LinuxMedNews, detailing the exchanges that led to the split but adding "In no way do I wish to disparage the company." (The two Shreeves are twins.) Steve Shreeve says he remains Medsphere's largest shareholder.

Medsphere built its business on VistA, software originally created by the Veterans Administration and released to the public domain. It has enhanced and productized VistA, promising to release an open source version called OpenVista. It was the release of OpenVista that precipitated the crisis. WorldVista, a non-profit launched in 2002, has been working to add more modules (like pediatrics) to the VistA software, and it has its own SourceForge page.

I've written here about Medsphere twice, first in June, when I talked vision with Scott Shreeve, then in September, when I talked sales with Frank Pecaitis, who was showing off a Medsphere installation in Midland, Texas.

Here is where I think we are.

Success in open source depends heavily on community contributions. Medsphere's board probably feels it was a Little Red Hen, doing all the work for a lazy community's profit. There is also something to be said for the high sales costs of hospital IT, a cost that has to be recouped somewhere. If you feel the community is taking your work and undercutting your commercial endeavors, you can't run a business.

So what happens now? The answer will be important not only for Medsphere, but for any enterprise customer that believes it's using open source, and any open source company that doesn't feel it's getting enough cash from paying customers, or help from its community.

The Medsphere crisis could spell the end of enterprise open source applications.