Is "Open Source" Now Completely Meaningless?

I’m deep into building the OSCON schedule. I’ve found some very strange companies claiming to be open source. For example, Vyatta makes an “open source router”. Their web site talks big about open source and community, but it turns out they’re not talking about developers. In fact, the only download I could find was a live .iso of their “community edition”. No CVS, no subversion, no trac. It appears that their business model is to charge for the updates you’d get for free if there was CVS. They might give away the source on the .iso (I haven’t checked) but without the live source tree exposed it seems quite hollow. (update: Vyatta source is in git, though in my defense you can’t find this out from their downloads page only the wiki. Their entire product is GPL, so they’re as open source as they come. I apologize for misfiring)

Then there’s this IT Management piece on 10 hot open source companies. I naturally rifled through it hoping to find goodies for OSCON. What did I find? ZenOSS is like Hyperic, which we featured last year. Simula Labs CoRE Network smells like a clone of SpikeSource which is several years old. SugarCRM is at the centre of the badgeware melodrama (they have a questionably modified OSI-approved license, perhaps only 2/3 of their code is actually downloadable), and rPath and Montavista sell software that works on Linux but the software itself isn’t actually open source. (I’m not the only one to rip on this top 10–see Chris DiBona’s contempt too)

Can you really call yourself open source if you haven’t opened the source? I don’t think so. There’s a flood of “open source” companies selling things that work on open source but which aren’t open source themselves. I think these are proprietary products, not open source. That’s been the attitude that helped me select talks for OSCON–I only want open source products talked about. My rule of thumb is that the audience should be able to download, compile, and use the software that is talked about.

Tim disagrees with me. He says, “There are lots of interesting hacks on open source that don’t provide all the source. Is EnterpriseDB an open source company? (Allison and I just had a great call with Andy Astor.)They don’t actually provide their source, though they do give back a lot to the postgres community. But more importantly, they are *using* open source in a really creative way. They are building a layer on top of postgres to make it user compatible with Oracle, so it’s really easy to switch and interoperate. That’s a cool strategy for open source, and so worth featuring even if the company’s software isn’t open source.”

I think EnterpriseDB is a tricky boundary case. They’ve got software that helps bring people directly to OSS from closed source. That’s surely worthy of exposure at OSCON–it’ll help attendees convince their bosses to use more open source. But on the other hand, it fails my “can people build it?” test. I’ve had people from Yahoo!, Google, and Ticketmaster at OSCON before so that they could talk about their experiences as alpha consumers of open source and because I felt it was important to show high profile success stories of open source consumption so that attendees can use them as they agitate for more open source at their work. It’s the vendor presentations that really make me nervous–I find it hard to justify turning away a good open source project to feature a closed source project, regardless of whether it runs on open source or not.

What do you think OSCON should do in the future? Should we have talks on proprietary products that work on open source? Or should we keep the “if you’re selling a closed source product, you don’t belong at the Open Source Convention” policy we’ve had so far? How would something like EnterpriseDB fit in this? Leave your opinion in the comments, and mention whether you’ve been to OSCON before or not. I want to know what you think.

(Update: comments closed Aug 1 2007 due to spam)