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Use the Source, Luke

Open Source was not an idea decreed from the top. The Open Source movement is a genuine grass roots revolution. While evangelists like Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens have had great success changing the language around free software, that change would have been impossible if the conditions were not right. We have reached the stage where an entire generation of students who learned computer science under the influence of GNU is now at work in industry, and have quietly been bringing free software in through the back doors of industry for years. They do so not from altruistic motives, but rather to bring better code to their work.

The revolutionaries are in place. They are the network engineers, system administrators, and programmers who have thrived on open-source software throughout their education, and want to use open-source software to thrive professionally as well. Free software has become a vital part of many companies, often unwittingly, but in some cases quite deliberately. Open Source has come of age: there is such a thing as an Open Source business model.

Bob Young's company, Red Hat Software, Inc., thrives on giving away its core product: Red Hat Linux. One good way to deliver free software is to package it as a full-featured distribution with a nice manual. Young is primarily selling convenience, as most do not want to have to bother with downloading all the pieces that make up a full-featured Linux system.

But he is not the only one doing this. So why does Red Hat dominate the U.S. market? Why does SuSE Linux dominate Europe? Open-source software is a commodity market. In any commodity market, customers value a brand they can trust. Red Hat's strength comes from brand management: consistent marketing and community outreach that makes the community recommend them when their friends ask them which distribution to use. The same is true for SuSE, and the two companies own their respective markets mostly because they were first to take brand management seriously.

Supporting the community is essential. Red Hat, SuSE, and other companies in the Linux space understand that to just make money off of Linux without giving anything back would cause two problems. First, people would consider such a company a freeloader and would recommend a competitor instead. Second, a company must be able to differentiate itself from competitors. Companies like CheapBytes and Linux Central merely provide low-cost distribution, selling CDs for as little as a dollar. For Red Hat to be perceived as offering greater value than these budget distributors, Red Hat must give something back. In a wonderful irony of the Open Source model, Red Hat can afford to charge $49.95 for their distribution only because they support the development of new code and return that code to the community at large as Open Source.

This kind of brand management is new to Open Source, but an old-fashioned model of simply providing good service has been a part of the Open Source business model for a long time. Michael Tiemann helped found Cygnus on the idea that though the world's best compiler, GCC, was freely available, companies would still be willing to pay for support of and enhancements to that compiler. Co-founder John Gilmore's description of Cygnus is apt: ``Making free software affordable.''

In fact this model of giving away the product and selling the support is proliferating rapidly in the Open Source world now. VA Research has been making and supporting high-quality Linux systems since late 1993. Penguin Computing offers similar products and services. LinuxCare does full, soup-to-nuts support for Linux in all of its flavors. Sendmail creator Eric Allmen has now created Sendmail Inc. to provide service and enhancements for the mail server software that holds about 80% of the market share. Sendmail is an interesting case because they have a two-tiered approach to the market. It has the proprietary Sendmail Pro, and the Free Software Sendmail, which is one year behind Sendmail Pro's development cycle.

Along those same lines, Paul Vixie, the president of Vixie Enterprises and a contributor to this book, enjoys a practical monopoly through his program BIND. This unassuming program is used every time you send an email or go to a web site or download a file via ftp. BIND is the program that handles the conversion of addresses like ``'' to their actual IP address (in this case, Vixie enjoys a thriving consultancy derived from his program's ubiquity.

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Last updated: 1999-08-06