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Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

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Do Open Source Companies *Really* Support Free Software?

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Asterisk, a PBX, telephony engine, and telephony applications toolkit, is one of open source best-kept secrets. As with many open source projects, there is a company that has been set up to provide support, Digium.

Here's its latest press release:

Digium, Inc., the Asterisk Company, today announced the general availability of support subscriptions for open source Asterisk. The software, which Digium’s founder and chief technology officer, Mark Spencer, created and released under the open source GNU General Public License (GPL) 10 years ago, is now the world’s most pervasive open source telephony platform.

The new Asterisk support services allow organizations of any size to leverage the power of open source Asterisk with the confidence that their system is supported by a world-class support organization. The support subscriptions provide technical support, hardware replacements and substantial discounts on training programs to enable users to take full advantage of the power of the Asterisk platform.

Well, so what? you may well ask. An open source company is offering support for free software: isn't that what nearly all open source companies do?

Well, no.

There's a subtlety here that's worth underlining. As the press release goes on to explain:

“Digium’s new subscription services give Asterisk users the best of both worlds—they can download and use Asterisk free of charge, as always, and now they can also call on Digium for technical support when needed,” said Spencer. “We think the combo of free and open, with support, is going to appeal to many of our most technical users. The Asterisk community has long been a source of great expertise through online forums, and now we’re supplementing that with the ability to call us, 24x7, for access to our Asterisk experts.”

The point is, many open source companies will only offer support for their “commercial” editions. Specifically, they refuse to support the free, “community” editions that are purely open source. The interesting thing about Digium, is that it is explicitly offering support for the free versions.

The reason why many open source startups adopt this paradoxical approach stems from an obvious desire to push their “commercial” offerings. These are preferred over the “community” versions, because overall they presumably bring in more money than simply supporting the free stuff. So the reluctance to support the latter is ultimately down to a desire to make more money.

Nothing wrong in that, you might say, except that in this context it seems to bring about a distortion in the open source business world, whereby non-free software is pushed in preference to free. The sad thing is that, as Digium shows, open source companies can make money supporting free versions too – just less of it.

I think the root of the problem is that people are still hankering after the mythical “billion dollar” open source company – seeing it as a kind of proof that free software “works” as a business model.

What this overlooks is that open source has reshaped the underlying economics of the software industry: it has taken out the huge financial padding that exists in the world of commercial software – aka excess profits – and which have provided fabulous returns for companies like Microsoft over the last few decades.

There is unlikely to be an open source company with a turnover of one billion dollars, because that implies a return to the old model of trapping customers with software lock-in, and then squeezing as much money out of them as possible, secure in the knowledge that they have no choice.

Open source is different, even – or especially – when it comes to open source companies. These will inevitably make less than their proprietary forebears, because truly free software prevents users being trapped and exploited. This means that there is competition, that prices drop - and with them sales and profits.

The sooner software startups accept this, and follow Digium in supporting the “community” editions with their lower margins, the sooner we will have open source companies that truly support free software, rather than simply feeding off it.

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