Being Open

Likewise Software (originally Centeris) has always been an open source company. We built products on top of Samba, MIT Kerberos and OpenLDAP. We’ve been frequent contributors to these projects. We employ or contract several Samba developers.

For a while, we played down this aspect of our company. Our reasoning was that enterprise software companies (in other words, “large companies that spend a lot of money on software”) are less likely to want to pay for open source software and more likely to value proprietary software. Indeed, one of our competitors would frequently bring this up with customers as a way to, we thought, devalue our software.

A while back, we decided to stop being apologetic about open source and to, in fact, emphasize that we are an open source company. We released an open source version of our software, Likewise Open, and we made it available to various Linux and UNIX vendors. It is currently shipping with Ubuntu 8.04 and will shortly begin to appear in other distributions of Linux and UNIX. We continue to sell Likewise Enterprise (with many more features), but the open version is free.

At first, this change in public posture required some internal selling. Our sales people, as a matter-of-fact, worried that we might be committing seppuku.Without recounting the details, let me say that they ultimately came around and were willing to give it a try.

Our sales folk are now our #1 proponents of the open source approach – the strategy of being “open” about being Open has paid off tremendously. Why? Several reasons:

  1. There is a tremendous amount of “good will” around open source. There are customers who have chosen to buy our paid, Enterprise, product because we have an open product. 
  2. The Linux and UNIX distributors are much more likely to take your calls if, you too, are an open source company.
  3. Likewise Open is easy to download and install (it doesn’t require any Windows components, unlike our Enterprise version). When you have thousands of downloads, some of these inevitably turn into high quality Enterprise leads.
  4. When companies are interested in the Enterprise version but don’t yet have budget, we can propose they use Likewise Open in the meantime. Once they are using Open, they are much more likely to buy Enterprise than to buy a competitor’s product.

All this said, the open approach is not a marketing strategy. You either are an open source company or you are not. You can’t pretend to be one.

When we see a proprietary company all of a sudden release its products under an open source license and try to succeed on support contracts, we term this the Open Source Hail Mary play. Everything else has failed so they try this one last thing to see if they can be the next Red Hat. It doesn’t work that way.

The open source community can be extremely tight knit. If you are an open source company, you’ve been contributing to the community on a regular basis. “Contribution”, of course, means contributing software, patches, etc. Contribution also means participating in technical discussions. It can also mean, periodically, contributing financially as well (for example, sponsoring conferences). You cannot declare yourself to be an open source company any more than you can declare yourself to suddenly be Italian. You either have to be born in Italy or (through a long process) become a naturalized citizen.

Over the next few months, we are going to continue to expand our Likewise Open offering. We will be putting more features into the product and will be evangelizing its architecture. Once again, there is some concern that we might be giving away too much but, if history repeats itself, we will get much more in return.