Could closed core prove a more robust model than open core?

When participating recently in a sprint held at Google to document four free software projects, I thought about what might have prompted Google to invest in this effort. Their willingness to provide a hotel, work space, and food for some thirty participants, along with staff support all week long, demonstrates their commitment to nurturing open source.

Google is one of several companies for which I’ll coin the term “closed core.” The code on which they build their business and make their money is secret. (And given the enormous infrastructure it takes to provide a search service, opening the source code wouldn’t do much to stimulate competition, as I point out in a posting on O’Reilly’s radar blog). But they depend on a huge range of free software, ranging from Linux running on their racks to numerous programming languages and libraries that they’ve drawn on to develop their services.

So Google contributes a lot back to the free software community. The release code for many non-essential functions. They promote the adoption of standards such as HTML 5. They have been among the first companies to offer APIs for important functions, including their popular Google Maps. They have opened the source code to Android (although its development remains under their control), which has been the determining factor in making Android devices compete with the arguably more highly-functioning iOS products. They even created a whole new programming language (Go) and are working on another.

Google is not the only “closed core” company (for instance, Facebook has also built their service around APIs and released their Cassandra project). Microsoft has a whole open source program, including some important contributions to health IT. Scads of other companies, such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, and VMware, have complex relationships to open source software that don’t fit a simple “open core” or “closed core” model. But the closed core trend represents a fertile collaboration between communities and companies that have businesses in specific areas. The closed core model requires businesses to determine where their unique value lies and to be generous in offering the public extra code that supports their infrastructure but does not drive revenue.

This model may prove more robust and lasting than open core, which attracts companies occupying minor positions in their industries. The shining example of open core is MySQL, but its complex status, including a long history of dual licensing and simultaneous development by several organizations, make it a difficult model from which to draw lessons about the whole movement. In particular, Software as a Service redefines the relationships that the free software movement has traditionally defined between open and proprietary. Deploying and monitoring the core SaaS software creates large areas for potential innovation, as we saw with Cassandra, where a company can benefit from turning their code into a community project.

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