In the past week I heard about two fairly large companies who are in a bit of a jam. Back in the days of the Internet Boom, they purchased an “E-commerce server” from one of two separate niche software vendors (i.e. ISVs). These two ISVs were amongst the leading providers of e-commerce middleware in 2000. Many companies chose to deploy their initial online commerce sites using software from these two niche ISVs. Then came the Internet Bust. Then came larger software vendors, who entered the e-commerce server market late, but caught & surpassed the product function/features/benefits offered by these niche ISVs.

Customers saw this development and began to deploy their new or expanded online commerce sites using offerings from the larger software vendors. The increased completion led to depressed revenues, depressed stock values and layoffs for these niche ISVs. They’re still around, but not truly considered viable in the eyes of current or potential customers.

Because of code escrow agreements, today, more than a handful of customers have access to the source code from these niche ISVs.

Great, Company XYZ now has this source code in their hands. What’s the value of this source code? I submit that the value is equal to the value of the CD/DVD/USB key that the source code is on. Company XYZ, isn’t in the middleware or packaged software business. They don’t want to be in the business of maintaining or writing an e-commerce server. Now what?

  1. Find a 3rd party to maintain and further develop this code for them & other customers in a similar situation
  2. Band together with customers in a similar situation and maintain/develop the code using internal IT resources
  3. Cut their losses and migrate the company’s online store to another ISV product

Everyone tells you there’s great value in having source code access. There can be, especially when you’re waiting for a defect fix of a new feature that you (think you) could develop yourself in a weekend. But these are edge cases for most companies.

I write about these two companies to illustrate a simple point: access to source code is often a red herring (unless your company wants to enter the packaged software business).

When an OSS advocate tells you that access to source code is critical, think twice. I’m not saying that having access is necessarily bad. It’s just not all that that it’s cracked up to be.