There are a few distinct, yet somehow related, items I want to highlight today. Here they are:
- Open source licenses (specifically Facebook’s React)
- Cloud stuff
Taken together, I think these items should give us all pause to stop and think about open source business models in the era of the cloud. I read these and see a story of user choice (perhaps too much of it), technological innovation, strong communities and very difficult business considerations. The Facebook licensing stuff isn’t directly related, but it underscores the notion, sometimes overlooked, that open source software doesn’t exist in a world free of cold-hearted business concerns.
MongoDB is probably a fine technology and company, but it’s competing against companies like Oracle and, perhaps more accurately, AWS, Google and Microsoft, that absolutely dwarf it. MongoDB is a 10-year-old company with more than $100 million in annual revenue, and even still I have to imagine that every new every new product release is more or less an all-hands-on-deck situation. Major new changes to pricing for a core product might be an existential decision.
And, yet, the big cloud providers futz with data center architectures, produce highly secure boxes for moving terabytes of data, and switch to by-the-second billing seemingly without batting an eye. They also roll out a lot of new database services, and services in general, on a pretty steady pace. That’s not to say these things are easy or even that they’re always executed perfectly. But they must be done in order to keep up with the Joneses, so they get done.
So when a company like Timescale steps in with a new open source database and takes on companies like MongoDB, it’s a smart decision without, in my opinion, a whole lot of visible upside. It’s certainly easier to compete against MongoDB and its peers than it is to compete against Oracle but, realistically, you’re competing to become a small or maybe medium-sized fish in an enormous pond. Developers today have so many open source database options it’s nigh impossible to keep up. That’s not to mention the continued push by the Oracles, Microsofts and Amazons of the world. And MongoDB.
Still, a sufficiently revolutionary technology paired with a sufficiently revolutionary OSS business model could emerge as a giant. But getting heard above the noise, building a differentiated-enough product, building a self-sustaining community, and then figuring out how to monetize it are all really tough undertakings. This is compounded by the fact that there are other popular open source projects created and managed not by competing vendors, but by large technology companies with strategic interests not directly tied to revenue from that project.
It’s an issue that obviously goes well beyond databases. I firmly believe that open source is the future of enterprise software—especially infrastructure software—but there are days when it’s difficult to see how exactly that future shakes out without some serious reconsideration of what it really means to be a successful company.