To Be (Open) or Not to Be (Open) – Dilemma of Pentaho Analyzer

First off – congratulations to our friends at Pentaho on making a great strategic acquisition of LucidEra’s ClearView product and embedding it in Pentaho Enterprise Edition. With this, Pentaho will completely replace JPivot as the web UI to view and report OLAP data. Many of us (including OpenI) have lamented about JPivot UI at one point or another, about not providing the desired eye candy effect, so for Pentaho to finally be able to pull this off is a great accomplishment, and hats off to them.

There is, however, one catch — this new UI replacement will NOT be available in the open source version. You have to buy the Enterprise Edition license to get this new UI.

Huh? I hear you say. Well-known BI columnist Seth Grimes questions “Is Pentaho, founded as a “commercial open source” BI vendor, still defined by open source? Pentaho itself seems unsure.” On the other hand, Julian Hyde, a well-respected BI technologist and the project lead of Mondrian, has a compelling rationale for Pentaho to keep this closed source. He says:

If you release a piece of software open source out of sheer, ‘I love the world!’ altruism, you won’t necessarily see much benefit. Pentaho is a for-profit business, and they are savvy about leveraging the benefits of open source software. And let’s not kid ourselves, there are considerable downsides to releasing something open source. Your competitors can pick up the software and incorporate your hard work into their suite. And your customers may decide that the free version is so good that they aren’t going to give you any of their money.

So given this, is it wrong for Pentaho to call itself a “commercial open source” company? In fact, does Pentaho platform even qualify as an open source platform anymore since a major component is only available in the closed source enterprise edition?

The answers, IMHO, are not straightforward.

The key issue is that the origin of open source was not based on making money, but rather based on sharing and leveraging what’s now called the “wisdom of the crowds”. Linus Torvalds uploaded his build of Linux including the source code not so much to charge fees for commercial license and support, but rather so that other like minded engineers will take the code apart, provide feedback, and better yet, improve and add new parts that make it better. And you can say the same about Apache, Mozilla browser, and many other similar well-known open source projects.

But then came people like us — we loved the open source model of developing and distributing software, AND we also wanted to make a living out of it. Initially, it was getting consulting gigs to integrate or customize your open source software, but that doesn’t scale as well. Enter “commercial open source” — first pioneered by the likes of Red Hat, SuSe, etc. to provide commercial license and support of Linux, this intrigued a lot of other open source projects. So soon you had Compiere for ERP, SugarCRM for salesforce automation, etc. etc. and in BI sector, enter Pentaho and Jaspersoft.

And when you are a commercial business, you have to continuously grow (especially if you have taken institutional investments) — so you look for all possible new ways to create new lines of products and services. For closed source commercial enterprise software, this usually resulted in feature and code bloat. And now for commercial open source companies like us, this means creating new “Freemium” models — i.e. what else can we build around the open source software that we can get paid for.

So, as a business — Pentaho has all the valid reasons to justify not open sourcing the new ClearView based UI for OLAP reporting. It developed (acquired) the technology all on its own, it has resources to continually test/improve it (i.e. doesn’t really need community contribution to succeed), plus there is a reasonable market demand — so, why not charge for it and create a sustainable commercial infrastructure?

The argument then is mostly philosophical of whether Pentaho still qualifies as an “open source software”. Some are calling it “Open Core”, probably more aptly.  The only drawback is that is someone, for example us guys at OpenI, want to collaborate/experiment building on Pentaho platform leveraging the ClearView UI features, we can’t do that in an open source model. We will have to become a Pentaho partner, get a restricted license to the code, and whatever we build on top of it, we can’t redistribute it as open source. How much that affects Pentaho, only time will tell.

There was recently a much publicized debate on a similar topic when Chris Anderson’s book “Free” (first published as a Wired column) came out making a strong case for future belonging to products that are built around a free version, and Malcom Gladwell had a reasonable disagreement where he said:

…Anderson is forced to admit that one of his main case studies, YouTube, “has so far failed to make any money for Google.” Why is that? Because of the very principles of Free that Anderson so energetically celebrates. When you let people upload and download as many videos as they want, lots of them will take you up on the offer. That’s the magic of Free psychology: an estimated seventy-five billion videos will be served up by YouTube this year. Although the magic of Free technology means that the cost of serving up each video is “close enough to free to round down,” “close enough to free” multiplied by seventy-five billion is still a very large number.

Ultimately, “Free”, whether it’s OpenI or Pentaho or Gillette razor, can only succeed if the people making the “Free” have a way to get paid, and a way to scale the business profitably. In the absence of that, the people making the “Free” will not survive, and when they are gone, the “Free” product goes away as well. That is also our rationale for providing commercial support and integration for OpenI — we need to generate revenue in order to continue supporting OpenI, and contrary to popular belief, majority of the open source projects can’t succeed on volunteer contributions alone. So, as much as I’d have wanted Pentaho to open source their ClearView UI, I have to admit that making it a part of paid version will benefit the health of their company, and thus increase the chances of them being around to continue supporting the “Free” model. And these things aren’t set in stone? What’s “Closed” today, can become “Open” tomorrow  — as long as there are other new “Freemiums” to offset the switch.