I was revisiting an article I penned very optimistically several years ago about open source software collaboratives. Most notably, I mentioned the Avalanche Corporate Technology Cooperative and the Government Open Code Collaborative (GOCC). These were (I stress the “were”) seemingly ill-fated initiatives to share the source code to business applications in the commercial and public sectors, respectively.
Checking on these initiatives two years hence, I discovered that there has been scarce an update to either one of these sites since I wrote the article. Looking back and reflecting on my thoughts and experiences over the past couple of years, I realize that these two initiatives were destined to fail and that the open source community is unlikely to produce quality, open source enterprise applications. Allow me to compare.
The market for infrastructure software such as operating systems, servers, and utilities is occupied by a competitive mix of open source and commercial products. The margins on these products and their support services are low and there is little value added by offering unique product configurations. The market for enterprise applications, on the other hand, is occupied by businesses, system integrators and the software developers they employ to build their applications. Organizations may derive significant business value from product differentiation and custom configurations and there are no incentives for sharing of software at this level.
However, despite all of these important points, the most important reason why open source enterprise applications are unlikely can be explained in two words – critical mass. A significant amount of effort is spent making sure that open source operating systems, servers, and utilities run on a variety of software and hardware platforms and can be configured in a myriad of ways to meet business needs. The only real parallel in terms of the enterprise application world are enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems from companies such as SAP and PeopleSoft. Even these systems are known for how difficult they are to configure. The open source community will likely never see the case for building infinitely configurable enterprise applications that serve a handful of organizations at most.
Given the growth of Web 2.0, mashups, and Web services, it remains to be seen whether enterprises choose to leverage any or all of these developments in their applications. Perhaps open source enterprise applications aren’t really applications at all, just mashups of different open services that look like what we used to refer to as “enterprise applications”.