What if Hot Dog vendors sold you Power Tools?

Well, since it’s been topical, and I can never resist an urge to discuss open source licensing…

What do you buy from a Hot Dog Vendor? Hot Dogs, duh!

What do you buy from an Office Supplies Vendor? Office Supplies, duh!

What do you buy from (most) Open Source Vendors? Proprietary Software, … huh?

Let’s do this another way…

What do you get if you buy Yellow Products? Products that are Yellow, duh.

What do you get if you buy Enterprise Software Products? Products that are fit for use by Enterprises, duh!

What do you get if you buy (most) Open Source Products? A proprietary product built on an open source project, … huh?

If you want to be called a “insert term here” vendor should sell “insert term here.” Otherwise you aren’t really “vending” it, you’re just using it as part of a strategy, marketing, development method, etc. Which, in my opinion, is what open source is: A way to develop and distribute software, not what you are selling. Very few of the open source companies actually sell an “Open Source Product.” They sell a proprietary one and services built on top of a great open source project, aka Open Core.

Most “Open Core” companies should simply be defined as “Software Companies with exceptional Open Source development models.” You can not purchase an “open source product” from an Open Core company. You can purchase their proprietary product on top of the open source project, but there is no product you can buy that is “open source” from most Open Core companies.

See the difference? Product and Project are not the interchangable. Vendor and “Model/Company” are not interchangable.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m no enemy of Pentaho by any means; quite the opposite. Just last week I wholeheartedly recommended to a customer they renew their EE subscription based ONLY on the new Pentaho Analyzer (which is GREAT, btw)!  It doesn’t negate the value they sell to customers, Open Core companies still deliver exceptional value.  I don’t call in to question the validity of the Open Core model and it’s mutual benefit for those involved (as James points out consistently in his BeeKeeper).

Open Core Companies just shouldn’t be surprised when people experience cognitive dissonance when they buy a proprietary product without an open source license from an “open source vendor.”

15 thoughts on “What if Hot Dog vendors sold you Power Tools?

  1. Doug Moran

    Hey Nick,

    What do you buy from a Hot Dog Vendor? Well if it’s the worlds most famous hot dog vendor, Nathan’s, you can buy Hamburgers, Cheesesteaks, Chicken Sandwiches, and Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips. http://www.nathansfamous.com/PageFetch/getpage.php?pgid=37 What differentiates them? Great hotdogs. Should they change their name? I doubt it.

    What about General Mills who actually sells food, not mills. They started out with a couple mills which is how they made the flour and cereal that made them a household name. They are named after a process, not the products they sell and I don’t think anyone really cares.

    Hillshire Farm and T.G. Lee Dairy sell products that come from farming and dairies, after processing, modifying and packaging. I think most people are smart enough to figure out what they sell.

    What do we do at Pentaho? We write business intelligence software that is open source and we write a lot of it. I think we have earned the right to say that we are an open source business intelligence company. We also write proprietary software and have bought proprietary software that extends the open source software and we sell it -something that anyone on the planet can do. Selling a proprietary product does not negate what we do in open source.

    I totally agree with you about the fact that “…open source is: A way to develop and distribute software…” It is a development model, an awesome development model, but a development model none the less. I don’t believe that it is misleading to tout our use of the open source development model to differentiate ourselves from traditional software vendors. That would be like saying that organic farmers shouldn’t use the term “organic farming” to differentiate themselves because they are “…just using it as part of a strategy, marketing, development method, etc.”

    Ultimately, the majority of our customers don’t care how it was developed or that the developers weren’t forced to sit in cubicles or that the binary code has more zeros than ones or that the analysts and bloggers would have preferred that we called ourselves ‘Pentaho – a software company with an exceptional open source development model’. They want to know if it does what they need it to do, can they be successful with it and will it cost them less in the long run. The great thing, according to your article and the others by Seth Grimes and Merv Adrain, is that the answer is yes. Thank you for your continued support, and maybe we can do more to make our messaging clearer for the experts.

    Doug Moran
    Pentaho Community Connection

  2. Nicholas Goodman Post author

    Notice that I didn’t say that Pentaho should not call itself “Open Source Business Intelligence Company.” That’s entirely fair and congruent (a company that produces A LOT of open source business intelligence code). What Pentaho is not, according to my line of thinking, is a company that sells an “open source product.” Pentahos product, however great it is (and we are in perfect agreement on this) is EE which is not open source.

    An open core company can be an “Open Source (insert functional area here) Company” certainly. Do they sell an “open source product?” Nope. Can they be an “open source vendor?” Nope.

    Is this a bad thing? Nope. Do customers care as long as the model provides value and quality code? Nope. Am I saying this is “bad” in aggregate? Nope.

    Saying that only people paying close attention (analysts and bloggers) are irrelevant ignores the system we live in. There’s a reason that analysts get paid by customers to analyze and go to that level of detail to inform them – their whole product is to have done this digging, and inform their clients (or the world). Definitions don’t change (vendor, product) just because someone points out their definition and how congruent (and this is SUBJECTIVE, I’ll certainly say that) it vendors/products are.

    PS –
    re: General Mills. General Mills is a company name, not a product/vendor description. I’m pretty sure General Mills wouldn’t describe themselves as a “Mills Vendor” or issue a press release that they are introduction a new line of “Mill Products.” Nathans hot dogs mess with my metaphor so I hereby just say “crap” and concede the point! 🙂

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  4. Daniel Einspanjer

    Ah, I’ve got to step in then.
    Nathan’s did in fact change their name from the original “Nathan’s Famous Frankfurter” to “Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs” when the term hot dog supplanted frankfurter in common use. It then changed again to just “Nathan’s Famous” in reaction to the diversification of their product line.

  5. James Dixon

    Hi Nick,

    If you can come up with a short, descriptive, and accurate phrase and get it commonly used and understood, we will gladly use it.

    We don’t use the term ‘open source’ to describe ourselves, we use the term ‘commercial open source’. We didn’t invent the term, and it is the only term commonly used to describe our business model. The term ‘open core’ is misleading (in Pentaho’s case), and only understood by tiny subset of the small fraction of the population that know what open source is. So you’re not going to see ‘open core’ used up front any time soon.


  6. Nicholas Goodman

    Again, the issue (and it’s just a matter of confusion, not anything nefarious, in the minds of public/customers/analyst/bloggers) is not the term “open source.”

    Pentaho produces (a lot) of Open Source code.
    Pentaho is a great Open Source company.
    Pentaho is, in my opinion, the best Open Source BI company and project.

    James, the term “open source” is sound and aptly describes the wonderful things Pentaho does! It just can’t be used to accurately describe the product that Pentaho sells! I don’t say this is wrong – open core is they way most companies have found to thrive on this.

    Maybe it’s the ambiguity of the commercial modifier. If the widely accepted (and I have NO IDEA on this) definition of “commercial open source” is “Proprietary, but built on top of open source” then “commercial open source” accurately describes the open core model. ie, Commercial = proprietary.

    Commercial can mean other things (builds, support, indemnification, etc) and doesn’t explicitly mean proprietary but I’ll certainly say that proprietary extensions to open source code certainly falls into the definition commercial.

    And of course, the debate here is focused on confusion, terminology. Pentaho for some reason resents (or reacts somewhat defensively) when friends (Pedro/Merv/Seth/me) point out the terms/messaging that breed cognitive dissonance. I’m in full support of Pentaho and its open core model but none of that changes the points above.

    You can arrive at this hair splitting (and I agree it is hair splitting) determination via these questions.

    a) Is the product that Pentaho sells to customers open source?
    b) Is the product that Pentaho sells to customers built on open source?
    c) Is the product that Pentaho sells to customers built on enough open source that the company should be called an open source company?
    d) Is the product that Pentaho sells to customers built on enough open source that the company can call their product an “open source product?”

    I think a is no, b is yes, c is yes, and d is no.

    d has been traditionally an “OR” bit that gets flipped. ie, according to to the legalease of licenses for sure, but I think also generally accepted as well, even if your product is 99% open source and 1% proprietary the presence of any proprietary code makes the combined work (software) proprietary. Hence the avoidance of GPL, etc.

    And before someone throws another “customers don’t care” at me… I’m fully aware. Customers have been throwing plenty of money after proprietary software for ages… Customers, really, don’t care about FOSS. So, while writing this and discussing publicly is an exercise in definitions and debate I know (and am glad) this has no impact on Pentahos business.

    Customers buy value, Pentaho delivers. Can we say we’re all of us in perfect agreement on that!

  7. Nicholas Goodman Post author

    Ok, I believe that.

    However, it seems like Pentaho is just shouting over the actual topic (specific terms that are confusing) to simply defend it’s street cred as an open source company.

    I say: it’s confusing to call a proprietary product (EE) an open source product.
    Pentaho says: “I think we have earned the right to say that we are an open source business intelligence company”
    I agree!

    I say: it’s confusing for an open source vendor to not really sell open source products.
    Pentaho says: “..we use the term ‘commercial open source’. We didn’t invent the term, and it is the only term commonly used to describe our business model.”
    I agree!

    My ultimate point is that our crossing comments are not incompatible – it’s just not been acknowledged that the Open Core model lends to cognitive dissonance. With Open Core you can have a “Commercial Open Source” company that sells a “Proprietary Product” on top of an “Open Source Project” but does not sell an “Open Source Product” and therefore does not actually sell open source and qualify as an “Open Source Vendor.” Its confusing, not inaccurate or wrong.

    So, let me say that I agree with everything you and Doug have written. It’s just not the topic (specific inaccurate phrases) we’re discussing which is why I thought it defensive. That could certainly be my mistake for construing topic missing response comments as defensive – perhaps the topic of discussion and source of confusion is still unclear.

    I hereby offer an in person meetup, with a bottle of whiskey to clarify. 🙂 Nothing helps to add clarity to semantic discussions like booze.

  8. James Dixon

    I have agreed on multiple threads that our messaging could be clearer, and I just don’t think its very interesting as a topic.

    In general people looking for a BI product don’t care about open source, and people looking for open source software don’t care that much about the corporate web site and press releases.

  9. Julian F

    Interesting, though my eyes are spinning like 8-balls trying to keep up with the discussion.

    One thing that’s always baffled me a bit about open-source though (which I use and promote btw) is what is the general motivation for open-sourcing products. Aren’t may of them just commercial products that didn’t “make it” commercially and the guardians of the software then try and preserve the longetivity of the code by making it available, in which case you could argue that it’s not entirely altruistic, rather a last roll of the dice?

    In terms of the semantics of open-core/open source an interesting (if slightly challenging discussion). I think I need to go and re-read the Pentaho licensing agreement. Am I right in assuming that elements of the Pentaho suite are not open source?

  10. Nicholas Goodman


    I think the outsourcing of code after a failed proprietary strategy is more of an exception than the rule. JasperSoft (formerly known as Panscopic) had a similar beginning, but found the Open Source light pretty fast. Infobright is a clear example of that – they started trying to sell their software for a year and then moved to an open source framework later. Ingres, no question there.

    Otherwise, most products tend to be commercial distros of an existing, vibrant, project.

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