My friend and fellow-analyst Holger Mueller has a good post on Why Open Source Has Won, and Will Keep Winning. Read the whole thing. In Holger's view, which I agree with, the battle between open source and propriety software is over, and open source won. In just a short fifteen years or so, it is hard to find any commercial software vendor attempting to build new platforms based on proprietary code. He writes:
Somewhere in the early 2000s, Oracle dropped its multi-year, 1000+ FTE effort of an application server… to use Apache going forward… that was my eye opener as a product developer. My eye opener as an analyst was in 2013, when IBM’s Danny Sabbah shared that IBM was basing its next generation PaaS, BlueMix, on CloudFoundry… so, when enterprise software giants cannot afford to out-innovate open source platforms, it was clear that open source war-winning. As of today, there is no 1000+ people engineering effort for platform software that has started (and made public) built inhouse and proprietary by any vendor. The largest inhouse projects that are happening now in enterprises, the NFV projects at the Telco’s, are all based on open source.Holger's observation is certainly true for software at the platform or infrastructure level of the technology stack. All the examples that Holger cites, and nearly any other that he could cite, are in these categories.
But what about enterprise business applications, such as ERP or CRM. One of the best examples is SugarCRM, but even there, it lags far behind the market leaders. Open source ERP is in even worse shape. Players such as Compiere (now owned by Consona), Adempiere (a fork of Compiere), Opentaps (an ERP and CRM system), xTuple (formerly, OpenMFG), and Odoo (formerly, OpenERP) barely move the needle in terms of market share. Where is the Linux of ERP?
Since the early 2000s, I have been hoping that open source would catch on as an alternative to the major enterprise apps vendors, such as SAP, Oracle, Microsoft, Infor, and others. I would like to see open source as a counterweight to the major vendors, putting more market power on the side of buyers.
So, why hasn't open source been more of a contender in enterprise applications? I can think of three factors, for a start.
- Open source needs a large set of potential users. But enterprise applications do not have as broad a potential user base as infrastructure software. Although the ERP market is huge, when you break it down by specific industries, it is small compared to the market for, say, Linux.
- Enterprise apps require a large effort in marketing and sales. Buyers put great weight on name recognition. But open source projects do not generally show much interest in the sales and marketing side of a business. If a project is truly community-developed, who is interested in marketing it? As a result, very few people know what Odoo is, for example, let alone, how to acquire it.
- Open source is labor-intensive. It is great for organizations that have time but no money. My impression is that open source ERP adoption is somewhat more successful in some developing countries, where there are very smart people with good technical skills willing to spend the time to implement a low-cost or no-cost solution. Here in the U.S., such companies are rare. Most would rather write a check.
So, why hasn't open source been more successful for enterprise applications? Perhaps readers can come up with other reasons. Please leave a comment on this post, or tweet me (@fscavo), or email me (my email is in the right hand column).
Update, Jan. 18: My friend Josh Greenbaum has posted a lengthy response on his blog, here: Open Source, Enterprise Software, and Free Lumber. Please read the whole thing, as it is quite thoughtful.
Josh agrees that open source software (OSS) has been more successful for infrastructure components than for enterprise applications. But he goes off in a different direction to argue that it's not right for commercial software vendors to make money from their use of OSS. I have two basic disagreements with Josh on this point. First, most OSS licenses (GNU, for example) mandate that creation of software incorporating the OSS must be provided under the same OSS license. So commercial software providers go to great lengths to ensure that their developers do NOT incorporate OSS into their software products. Now, OSS providers CAN incorporate OSS in their own operations (e.g. use of Linux or MariaDB in their provision of cloud services), and they can include OSS as a supported platform.. In both cases they are not violating the terms of the OSS license.
My second disagreement is that Josh objects to OSS on what I consider to be more or less moral grounds, that it is wrong for others to make money from the free contributions of others (a "sucker's game," he calls it). Putting aside the fact that commercial software providers (think, IBM, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and hundreds of others) are the largest contributors by far to OSS, no one is holding a gun to the head of any individual developer forcing him or her to work for free. If OSS contributors find it acceptable for others to make free use of their labors, who am I to say that it is wrong for others to do so? The fact that OSS has been wildly successful (at least for infrastructure-like components) tells us that there must be something in the economic model of open source that works to benefit both contributors and users of OSS.
Update, Jan 18: Some email correspondence from my friend Vinnie Mirchandani, led me to send this email reply, lightly edited here:
Yes, the large tech vendors, such as Google, Microsoft, IBM, etc., have benefited enormously from open source, but they also contribute enormously to open source projects, because it is in their best interest to do so. You know that IBM contributed key IP from its decades-old work in virtualization. Microsoft open sourced Visual Studios Code, and it is now one of the most widely-adopted development environment. Oracle, IBM, and others contribute to Linux because it ensures that it runs on and is optimized for their hardware. They all contribute because it is in their self interest to do so. Moreover, senior open source developers, especially those who have commit-privileges, are in high demand and are often hired by these same large tech companies. So the whole open source movement has become a virtuous ecosystem where everyone benefits.
Update, Jan 19: Over at Diginomica, Dennis Howlett riffs on our discussion in, Why you should take notice of the open source in enterprise suckers conundrum. On my question of why open source has not been more successful in enterprise applications, he points to the lack of real marketing and sales efforts. He writes:
I’d go one step further and as a nuanced view of Frank’s (2) element. In most cases, enterprise software is sold, it’s not bought. What I mean is that troupes of vendor reps, marketers and other hangers on line up to convince you about taking on one or other solution. In the open source world you are ‘buying’ not being sold. There is no real money for marketing and sales. You either take it (for free) and then work on it yourself, or you enlist the help of specialists who both understand your processes and the software code itself. And despite the early success of Salesforce as a cloud vendor from whom you bought applications at the departmental level on your credit card, the majority of enterprise deals are sold.