Don Marti

Fri 18 Nov 2005 10:11:20 PM PST

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow...

Murugan Pal has some notes on open-sourcing an existing proprietary software product. There's been a lot of pixie dust sprinkled on a lot of problem projects, so you need to be especially careful in this situation to avoid smelling like abandonware.

Three other items to look at. Number one, take Martin Fink's advice and don't write your own license. "Stop. Please don't. Call me." Remember, the whole idea of the Debian Free Software Guidelines, which became the Open Source Definition, was a guideline for which existing licenses to accept—not a set of guidelines for extreme license proliferation.

Second, this could fall under Murugan's items 2 and 3, but it's worth its own item: look very carefully at the build process. Not just getting rid of compiler warnings, but make the thing build without hassle. configure; make; make install is a good thing. One chance, first impression, et cetera.

Finally, consider if you'd really be getting closer to the goal of your project by using your expertise to contribute to an existing project instead. This is especially dramatic for Linux—the difference you get from learning the rules and getting "in the tree" is giving thousands of people the chance to try your code (which hardware designers use as an informal buyers' guide). Out-of-tree work—even if open source and done with the best intentions in the world—doesn't get that kind of exposure.

So why drop the proprietary software model in the first place? Larry Augustin writes,

"The problem is that the traditional enterprise software business model is broken. A rabid search for new customers and revenue growth has caused sales and marketing costs to spiral out of control. In fact, Rick Sherlund at Goldman Sachs estimates that in 2005 software companies will spend 82 percent of new license revenue on marketing and sales efforts. That's up from 66 percent in 2000.

"This quest for additional revenue has created an untenable cost structure for the industry - one that doesn't serve vendors or their customers. In essence, vendors spend a lot of money to convince customers to buy, and then charge them a lot of money for the license which covers the sales and marketing costs. We're charging the customer just to sell to them."

Combine that with Ray Lane's numbers on the profit "wasteland" of proprietary software, and any action starts to look better than nothing. Larry does go a little too far to the open source side, though, for two reasons. First, the cost of sales for open source vertical apps and late-adopter customers is going to look more like that for proprietary packages in the same markets than it is like that for packages that people can set up in their spare time to fill a small need (and only later need support for). Not even the sysadmin for an enterprise chicken-plucking system sets up just to try it out.

Second, there's nothing that says proprietary software can't fight back on cost of sales. Combine the ideas of The Sims and VMWare Player and proprietary software vendors could get a realistic, play-with-able, multi-system virtual environment that lets potential customers do "what if"s and get engaged in the product before taking too much of a real sales person's time.