Take one Savio, one Hilary, one hike along the Inca Trail, one cheap flight out of Buffalo, one conference and one laptop. Try to combine. Waste a whole evening. Get nowhere.

We had a trip to Peru planned before I realized that OSBC started on the day we get back to Toronto. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get to OSBC (1) on time and (2) with my laptop. So far, the best solution involves UPS, but I’m not sure about customs charges etc.

Since I’m trying to get to OSBC, which is Matt Asay’s baby, and I need someone (other than myself or Hilary) to blame, let’s pick on Matt ;-) So, without further delay:

In reading Matt’s post from April 4th: Spring founder says, “Want money? Follow the IP” Matt wrote:

“But plumb a little deeper, and you come up with the notion (valid, in my experience) that the best support and services in open source come from those who write the code.”

I assume that comment was a dig at Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux. If you head on over to the OSBC website and look in the top right-hand corner, you’re likely to see an advertisement for <drum_roll>Oracle Unbreakable Linux</drum_roll> (if you don’t, hit refresh a few times and you will). I found it funny that OSBC would accept advertising for a product that Matt has rallied against since its inception. But the Ad is probably part of a larger media purchase by Oracle on InfoWorld properties or something of that sort. Sorry Matt, couldn’t resist. ;-)

However, Matt’s comment really begs a more important question. If we believe the statement (and to a degree, I do) what does it mean for the OSS ecosystem and customers?

By saying “If you want services/support for OSS_Project_X, go to the vendor behind OSS_Project_X”, are we making a tacit ruling about vendors or consultants who are not the vendor behind OSS_Project_X? Where does that leave vendors like SpikeSource or OpenLogic? Where does this leave individual developers who learn a framework such as Spring in the hope of delivering services using Spring?

But the even bigger question is the impact on customers. Where is the choice that customers are supposed to get with OSS if we’re advantaging one service/support vendor over others in the ecosystem? Wouldn’t the disadvantaged service/support vendors exit the ecosystem over time, because, at the end of the day, we all need to feed ourselves. Now, what happens if a customer doesn’t agree with actions (pricing related, product related, or quality of support related) taken by the OSS vendor in question, what choice do they really have?

One can argue, “wake up Savio, the source is out there, so the customer could just support themselves, or another vendor could pick up the code and start offering support”. Yeah, that’s a great theory, but I really can’t think of more than a handful of successful forks. Forking another vendor’s code to deliver support doesn’t seem like a great business to be in. And we’ve yet to see how well a 3rd party vendor can support another vendor’s OSS product.

The above scenario changes if there are multiple vendors who “write the code” in an OSS project. This is typically true for Apache projects. But most of the other successful OSS projects are run by a single vendor who is doing a majority of the development work, and who is the leading provider of services/support.

The Myth?:
I’ve come to believe that the “choice, flexibility and control” messages that are prevalent when talking about the benefits of OSS aren’t as strong as one would think/hope. Maybe a larger IT organization with deep skills can take on the support work for an OSS project that they’re using. But the majority of customers who are buying support in 2007 are going to be buying support in 2057. I’ve yet to see a good argument of why they won’t be buying support from the same vendor in 2057 that they’re buying from in 2007. If you don’t believe me, go find an unhappy (but loyal) Oracle database customer.

A software decision is as much about a relationship with a vendor (or community) as it is about technology. And like it or not, a relationship involves a degree of commitment. Does OSS really change the commitment required?

PS: I’m only picking on Matt in a friendly way ;-)