Even before economies around the world got into a bit of a bind, the term open source was growing more and more popular. Since so many now equate open source with free, savings, cost efficiency and other such fiscal positives, the number of commercial software companies hitching the term to their products has increased. But are all of them actually doing open source in the fuller sense of the term?

What Is Commercial Open Source?

Eric Barroca, CEO of open source CMS vendor Nuxeo (news, site) recently blogged about this issue. When he refers to commercial open source, he's talking about a business model based on three "pillars." The first two are relatively straightforward:

  • A community revolving around GPL'd or otherwise open sourced software
  • A proprietary version of the GPL'd software with proprietary extensions sold using a traditional license

For the third pillar, Barroca describes it as, "A serious dose of communication efforts to explain how open source magically creates cheap great software for everyone (and that in fact you’re not really selling it) and generates a ton of leads allowing you to get to market faster and cheaper."

Commercial Open Source vs. Free Demo

What Barroca questions is whether this approach is really open source, or proprietary software hitching itself to the open source label. In particular, he discusses issues such as:

  • Are commercial open source community editions really the equivalents of a low-end proprietary free demo?
  • Does open source software by itself generate leads?
  • Does an open source community edition give people a reason to buy? What does that even mean?
  • Is open source by itself good for communities?

It's easy whether you're an open source fan or hater to have a kneejerk reaction to any or all of Barroca's questions. Admit it, you considered going off on a rant, didn't you? But there's nothing wrong with some healthy self-examination.

Really, there's room for as many different business models around open source as people can manage. Some companies that clumsily move into the open source arena genuinely mean well but don't entirely understand the options. Or they want to move toward open source but are too afraid of their ability to make ends meet that they don't want to stray too far from what they know.

But there are definitely those who just want to attach themselves to the hype in any way that they can manage. Such suspect motives tend to sew confusion in the marketplace and make it even harder for newcomers to understand which models really work best. So give his post a read and let us (and him) know what you think.