The Abstract Truth

Its Not About Open Source

Posted by rbpasker on January 20, 2008

Another blogger is using my post “JBoss Should never have happened” to bolster their claim open source won the app server war.

What I wrote was that BEA was tied up in its existing expensive pricing structure, and JBoss was cheaper. Even the JBoss people themselves knew this: when JBoss raised money, I assisted one of the VCs with due diligence. I saw the JBoss investor powerpoint presentation. It was not about open source being better for customers. It was about a lower total cost of ownership.

I don’t believe (and never wrote) that the “innovator’s dilemma attack” by JBoss on BEA was a result of JBoss being an open source product. And, indeed, IBM’s WebSphere is not an open source product, and unlikely will ever become one. Neither is SAP’s NetWeaver or Oracle’s OAS. IBM bought Geronimo to prevent JBoss from doing to WebSphere what JBoss was doing to BEA: undercut its prices.

There is another aspect that pundits attribute only to open source, and that is frictionless adoption.

When we made our products available for a free download, all you had to do was click through an ELU and register. But there were a few things we could have done to make life more difficult and chose not to do:

  • We never changed the URL of the download page. If you had the URL, you could download the software without going through any hoops, and we never prevented anyone from downloading new versions.
  • You could type anything into the registration page. We never validated any of the fields. Lots of people put in junk, but plenty more filled the boxes in with correct info.
  • The license manager was easily defeated. We never tried to make it foolproof. People who wanted to hack it found it pretty easy to do, and we were flattered when instructions turned up on a warez site!
  • We never used an obfuscator. Paul Ambrose used to say that because of the decompilers, writing software in Java was like playing open-faced, naked poker. Some people sent in workarounds to bugs which were obviously made through decompilation. We didn’t care. We even had a joke about customers decompiling the software: “It looks like this guy used transcendental meditation to figure out what’s wrong.” (We did obfuscate some code which we had licensed.)
  • All the documentation and tutorials were online, and that was one of our best marketing tools! Even before they tried the product, prospective customers could read everything about it and decide for themselves. Some people using competitive implementations of standard APIs wrote to us to say how much they appreciated our putting the documentation and tutorials online!

Should we have become an open source product? Well, we did talk about it, and there were a few strong proponents in engineering. But at the time, open source enterprise software was still a few years out, and there didn’t seem to be a compelling reason.

When JBoss started to show up, BEA should have taken proactive (rather than dismissive) measures by lowering the TCO and making adoption frictionless again. They didn’t necessarily have to open source the product (although they could have); they just had to get rid of the cost and friction motivation for new adopters. Hindsight is almost always 20/20. I’m not sure what we at WebLogic, Inc., would have done under the same circumstances.

One Response to “Its Not About Open Source”

  1. […] Its Not About Open Source […]

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