The community-led renaissance of open source

Moving beyond the scarcity mindset of "open core."
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With few commercial participants, early free software and open source communities were, by definition, community-led. Software was designed and created organically by communities of users in response to their needs and inspiration. The results, to a degree nobody predicted, were often magical.

However, there were some missing pieces that prevented this magic from being unleashed at greater scale. As professional developers in larger organizations began to depend on open source software for key functions, they started looking for the same kinds of commercial support they were used to having for the proprietary software they purchased from companies like Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP. Someone to be accountable for fixing a new security vulnerability in a timely manner, or providing basic intellectual property assurances such as license verification and indemnification, or just delivering the everyday maintenance necessary to keep the software in good working order.

First-generation open source businesses like Red Hat emerged to respond to these needs. They combined the best of both worlds: the flexibility and control of raw open source with the commercial support that enterprises depend on. These new open source businesses found their opportunity by adding the missing—but necessary—commercial services to community-led open source projects. These services would be costly for organizations to provide on their own and potentially even more costly to do without. One early leader of that era, Cygnus Solutions, even adopted the counter-intuitive tagline "Making free software affordable."

But back then, it was always overwhelmingly clear: The commercial vendors were in service of the community, filling in around the edges to enable commercial applications. The community was the star, and the companies were the supporting cast.

The dark ages of open core

With the success of the original commercial open source companies like Red Hat, investment dollars flowed toward startups looking to harness the newfound commercial power of open source.

Unfortunately, by and large, this generation of open source companies drew the wrong lessons from first-generation players like Red Hat.

Witnessing the powerful combination of community-created technology with vendor-provided commercial capabilities, this new breed of company concluded that the vendors were the stars of the show, not the community.

This marked a turning point for open source.

In this vendor-centric view of the world, it was imagined that a single organization could generate the insights and set the roadmap for open source technologies. This drove a pervasive new belief that open source communities primarily represented a capital-efficient marketing channel rather than a new form of internet-enabled co-creation.

These companies approached open source with a scarcity mindset. Instead of investing in community-led projects to unlock the potential of the crowd, they created vendor-dominated projects, released demo versions under open source licenses, and directed the bulk of their resources to companion proprietary technology that they withheld as paid-only, closed-source products. By reverting to some of the worst aspects of traditional proprietary software—like uncertain licensing terms, unclear support horizons, and unknowable cost—these businesses crowded out the best aspects of open source.

As so often happens, this misreading of the open source model took on a new life when it was assigned an innocent-sounding brand name: "open core."

The open core dog chased its tail into an escalating flurry of blog posts, pitch decks, and even dedicated open core conferences. In its worst moments, leading players in this movement even sought to redefine the very meaning of the words open source.

In the worldview of open core, the vendors are at the center of the universe, and open source users are just a commodity to be exploited.

A community-led renaissance to restore balance

While business interests whipped themselves into a frenzy around open core, the community of creators at the heart of open source just kept on building. While a handful of high-profile companies occupied the industry headlines, thousands of individual creators and teams kept on building software, one pull request at a time.

It added up. Today, the modern application development platform isn't from a single vendor, or even a collection of vendors. It's the union of thousands of discrete open source packages—implemented in languages like JavaScript, Python, PHP, Ruby, Java, Go, .NET, Rust, R, and many others. Each element built for its own purpose, but together creating a beautiful tapestry that has become the foundation of all modern applications.

In some cases, the creators behind these projects are assisted by organizations that arose naturally from the communities, like Ruby Together, the Apache Software Foundation, and the Python Software Foundation. But by and large, these creators are self-supported, making time in the margins of their day jobs and central pursuits to collaborate on the software that makes their work possible while collectively building a huge commons of open source software that's available for any individual or organization to use.

But now, there's an emerging way for open source maintainers to participate in the value they create, which isn't about withholding value, but instead is about creating additional value.

In a revival and expansion of the principles that drove the first generation of community-led open source commercial players, creators are now coming together in a new form of collaboration. Rather than withholding software under a different license, they're partnering with each other to provide the same kinds of professional assurances that companies such as Red Hat discovered were necessary back in the day, but for the thousands of discrete components that make up the modern development platform.

Today's generation of entrepreneurial open source creators is leaving behind the scarcity mindset that bore open core and its brethren. Instead, they're advancing an optimistic, additive, and still practical model that adds missing commercial value on top of raw open source.

And by emulating first-generation open source companies, these creators are rediscovering a wide-open opportunity for value creation that benefits everyone. As commercial organizations engage with managed open source services sourced directly from the creators themselves, there's an immediate clarity in the alignment of interests between producers and consumers.

The result? The end of the scarcity-mindset dark ages of open core, and a renaissance of technology driven by a new class of thriving, independent, full-time open source creators.

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Donald Fischer is co-founder and CEO of Tidelift, which makes open source work better—for everyone. Tidelift gives software development teams a single source for purchasing and maintaining their software, with professional support and maintenance from the experts who know it best.

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