As open source usage has grown into the mainstream, have users started to contribute less time and money to open source projects, thereby putting the future of the project at risk? One CEO of a leading open source based company thinks so.

Open Source loses it cachet
Today vendors are adding “cloud” into the description of their company or product for two reasons. First, in the hopes of riding the hype around cloud computing. Second, in order to shape the definition of what a cloud company or product is.

The above held true for “open source” five years ago.

Since then, open source has become much better understood as a development, distribution, pricing and licensing model by IT decision makers today. As a result, as The 451 Group’s Matt Aslett explains, the term “open source” holds less value as a differentiator for vendors. Aslett writes:

“…but these are among the highest profile open source-related vendors, so the fact that half of them have dropped open source as an identifying differentiator in the last 12 months (and another two long before that) is not insignificant.”

User contributions on a decline?
Brian Gentile, CEO of JasperSoft, an open source business intelligence vendor, agrees with Aslett’s conclusion that the term “open source” has lost its differentiating ability as open source is a mainstream option for many companies.

As open source has become mainstream, Gentile writes that he is seeing a decline in user contribution of time and money to open source communities. Gentile defines user contributions as follows:

“Open source communities thrive based on the community members donating either their time and/or money. Donating money typically comes in the form of buying or subscribing to the commercial versions of the open source products. Donating time can come in a wide variety of forms, including providing technical support for one another in forums, reviewing and commenting on projects, helping to QA a release candidate, assisting in localization efforts, and of course contributing code improvements (features, bug fixes and the like).”

Results from the 2010 Eclipse Survey support Gentile’s claims about user contributions of time declining.

In 2010, 41 percent of respondents, up from 27 percent in 2009, claimed they use open source software without contributing to the project.

Part of the decline in contribution is surely linked to corporate policies. The Eclipse survey found that 35 percent of respondents in 2010, down from 48 percent in 2009, claimed their employer’s corporate policies allowed employees to contribute to open source projects.

Open source users and customers are different
Is user contribution of money to an open source project also on a decline as Gentile worries?

James Dixon, CTO and founder of Pentaho, also an open source business intelligence vendor, disagrees with Gentile’s notion of users contributing money to a project.

Dixon believes that attempting to sell an enterprise version of software and services to community members is a mistake, one which misses the distinction between users and customers.

“As a commercial open source (COSS) company you can provide tools for your community members to persuade their employers to become customers, and you can explain how this benefits both companies involved and the community. For most COSS companies is it impossible to monetize the community directly, and therefore ridiculous to try.”

Users can contribute time, customers can contribute money
It’s important to separate, as Dixon does, the expectations on users versus customers. For enterprise software, users seldom have the budget authority to become paying customers. Users can encourage IT decision makers to become customers.

Gentile is correct in stating that users of an open source project, especially an early stage project, contribute their time to a project.

As the project becomes widely adopted by users, companies decide to adopt the resulting product from the open source project. These companies contribute money to the vendor, who in turn uses the funds to further enhance the product and the open source project.

A decline in user contributions of time is not necessarily an issue. Nor should it be concerning that community users aren’t contributing money to a project, for the simple reason that they don’t have the budget authority to do so within an enterprise.

Over time, user contribution declines, but the project is sustained by the funds made available to the project through corporate purchasers of the product. In a sense, as projects mature, user contribution of time is inversely proportional to customer contribution of money.

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