There’s an active debate going on in the activeCollab community stemming from the announcement that the formerly exclusively community-backed open source project will lose much of its open source trappings to go commercial and focus a closed platform providing open web services.
For those who aren’t aware, activeCollab was created as a free, open source and downloadable response to Basecamp, the project management web app. In June of last year, the project founder and lead developer, Ilija Studen, offered his rationale for creating activeCollab:
First version of activeCollab was written somewhere about May 2005 for personal use. I wanted Basecamp but didn’t want to pay for it. Being a student with few freelance jobs I just couldn’t guaranty that I’ll have money for it every month. So I made one for myself. It’s running on my localhost even today.
Ilija offered many of the usual personal reasons for making his project free and open:
- Establishing community.
- Earning money.
Now, the last one is significant, for a couple reasons, as was pointed out at the time of the first release: Ilija wanted to make money by offering commercial support and customization on a product imitating someone else’s established commercial product.
But, Ilija made one fatal mistake in his introductory post that I think he’s come to regret nearly a year later:
I find it normal to expect something in return for your work. activeCollab will always be free.
And so a community of Basecamp-haters and open source freeloaders gathered around the project and around Ilija, eager to build something to rival the smug success of Basecamp, something sprung from the head of the gods of open source and of necessity, to retrace the steps of Phoenix before it (later redubbed Firefox), to fight the evils of capitalism, the injustice of proprietary code, and to stave off the economic realities of trying to make a living creating open source software.
For a little under a year, the project slogged on, a happy alternative to Basecamp, perfect for small groups without the ability to afford its shiny cousin, perfect for those who refuse to pay for software, and perfect for those who need such collaboration tools, but live sheltered behind a firewall.
A funny thing happened on the way to the bank, though, and Ilija realized that simply offering the code for people to download, modify and run on their own servers wasn’t earning him nearly enough to live on. And without an active ecosystem built around activeCollab (as WordPress and Drupal have), it was hard to keep developing the core when he literally was not able to afford continuing to doing so.
Thus to decision to break from his previous promise and close up the code and offer instead an open API on which others could build plugins and services — morphing activeCollab from a commodity download to a pay-for web service:
Perhaps I am naive, and this was the business model all along. i.e. Build a community for the free software during early development and testing, then close it up just as the project matures.
That was not original plan. Original plan was to build a software and make money from support and customization services. After a while we agreed that that would not be the best way to go. We will let other teams do custom development while we keep our focus solely on activeCollab.
But, the way in which he went about announcing this change put the project and the health of his community at risk, as Jason pointed out:
I’m a professional brand strategist, and while nothing is ever certain, I also feel that this is a bad move.
Essentially you’ve divided your following into three camps. For, against and don’t care. A terrible decision.
What you should have done (or should do… its not too late)__
—> Start a completely seperate, differently branded commercial service that offers professional services
—> Leave your existing open-source model the same and continue to develop the project in concert with the community
Sugar is not a great model to follow. It’s not.
A better example would Bryyght[dot]com, a commercial company hosting Drupal CMS. The people there are still very actively involved in the original open-source project.
Overall, you should choose your steps wisely. While you’re the driving source behind the project – NOBODY fully owns their own brand.
A brand is owned by the community that are a part of it. Without customers, a brand is nothing.
A brand is owned by the community that are a part of it. Without customers, a brand is nothing. (Hmm, sounds like the theory behind the Community Mark).
I think JH has a point, and with regards to open source, one that Ilija would do well to consider. On the one hand, Ilija has every right to change the course of the project — he started it after all and has done the lion’s share of work. He also needs to figure out a way to make a living, and now, having tried one model, is ready to try another. On the other, closing up the core means that he has to work extra hard to counter the perception that activeCollab is not an open source project, when indeed, parts of it still will be, and likely, won’t be the worse for it.
That many of the original Basecamp haters who supported Ilija’s work have now turned their anger towards him suggests that he’s both pioneering a tribrid open business/open service/open source model and doing something right. At least people care enough to express themselves…
And yet, that’s not to say that the path will be easy or clear. As with most projects, the test is now how he manages this transition that will make the difference, not that he made the decision.
All the same, it does suggest that the open source community is going through an evolution where the question of what to be open about and with whom to share is becoming a lot harder to answer than it once was. Or at least how to sustain open source efforts that play into facile operation as web services.
With the Honest Public License coming in advance of the GPL v3 to cover the use of open source software in powering web applications and services, there are obvious issues with releasing code that once you could count on being tied to the personal desktop… now with the hybridization of the desktop/internet environments and the democratization of scripting knowledge, it’s a lot harder to make a living simply through customization and support services for packaged source code when you’re competing against everyone and their aunt, not to mention Yahoo, Google and the rest.
Truly, that is a question that I think a lot of us, including folks like Ilija, are going to have to consider for some time to come. And as we do consider it, we must also consider what the sustainable models for open source and open services look like in the future, for we are now living finally living web service-based economy, where the quality of your execution and uptime matter nearly as much, if not more, than the quality of your source code.