In Commercial Open Source, Partners = Community

What wowed me most at the Pentaho Global Partner Submit (#PGPS in Twitter) was, well.. the partners, or the partner program, I should say.

Back in the day, when we submitted our open source projects to sourceforge – we would sit there checking the number of downloads almost every minute, obsessing over the daily downloads and sourceforge ranking. A lot of this was driven by (besides the desire to be famous and get geek cred) the belief that more downloads = larger community = more “contribution” from the community.

This did not turn out to be true.

And not just for us, but for most open source enterprise applications out there, number of downloads has nothing to do with community participation. For that, you have to go beyond the realms of sourceforge forums and tracker – and actually actively build a community.

How do you do that? Well, after spending 2 days at PGPS, I am deeply impressed how great of a job Pentaho has done in building a thriving community via their partnership program. What we expected back in the day from our downloaders, Pentaho is exactly getting that from their partners. Partners are writing new features (e.g. Community Dashboard Framework, integration to CMS, single sign on, etc etc), they are fixing major bugs, they are writing books, they are even actively participating in shaping the roadmap. Simply amazing!

Whether this is a phenomenon unique to “commercial open source” – we don’t know, but look – for almost every enterprise open source project, at some point, reality kicks in, and we have to worry about monetization – so many of us become “commercial”. Of course, that immediately brings a tension between the users of the “free” version versus the “premium” version – as in, “why did you put feature ABC only in premium, and not in the free one, you greedy capitalistic pig?”

Well, one answer – “free” doesn’t pay the bills, “premium” does. “Free” is also probably justifiable if there was some contribution, but as we have seen – most of the people download and use open source for free, but they don’t contribute anything. Over time, this becomes unbearably taxing for the core developers of the open source project.

But amazingly, you can get more contributors to your “premium” version (and “free” version as well by extension) if you build a great partnership program around it like Pentaho has done. This is because not only the “premium” version pays Pentaho’s rent, it also helps their partners to pay their rent as well.

So yes, this isn’t the good old open source where it was all about freedom, peace, and love. This one is definitely about the money, but the twist is — it does share the wealth AND the open source bit makes it much easier for partner to participate and contribute. And in doing so, it brings back the extremely sought-after “community contribution” back in the game, which is the life/death factor for any open source project.

So Pentaho  – hats off to you guys for showing how to build a thriving community around commercial open source via a great partner program. Don’t ever go to the dark side :)