Before I joined EasyGenerator we had a series of discussions about a number of topics. One of them: open source. The question was: should EasyGenerator become open source or should it stay proprietary. In the end we decided not to go for the open source model en in this blog I will try to explain why.
Note: With open source software you share the source code of your software with everybody and everybody can contribute to it. As a user you are free to use the software without paying license fees (see GPL license). Proprietary software is build by a company and you can’t change it or add to it, and you have to pay a fee to use it.
When I worked at Stoas Learning we represented a few open source packages (Sakai, Moodle and Mahara). My open source experience is therefore mainly based on these three. I want to answer the question based on three different outlooks: the business perspective (as a producer of software), the partner perspective and the end user or customer perspective.
The revenues of an open source solution are limited. As a user you don’t pay licenses. So donations and gifts are very important. A lot of open source solutions have a partner network; these partners often pay a fee (a percentage of the revenues they generate with services around the software). Still you will not earn a lot of money. This means that for your organization and for the development of the tool you can only hire a limited amount of people, for the rest you depend on volunteers. This makes it always a challenge to manage the development process of the software; it’s much harder to plan, more difficult to maintain the quality level and it is difficult to guarantee the continuity of your product and organization.
The most successful open source software product in the learning field is Moodle. It now has almost 50.000 registered installations and 36.000.000 users. The actual figures will be even higher because not everybody registers their Moodle implementation. Moodle was founded (and is still managed) by Martin Dougiamas. I had the honor of meeting him, and in my eyes he is a true hero. He started from a pedagogical vision (social constructionism) and now ten years later he still stands firm for this. He has proven that he can build, manage and inspire a huge community and he brought Moodle to the next level (Moodle 2.0 has just been released last week). But even such a successful open source solution struggles, even with a hero like Martin a the steering wheel. It took them for example years to develop Moodle 2.0 and its release has been postponed over and over again. I don’t have an insight in their financial situation, but I know it doesn’t reflect the 50.000 Moodle installations. In other words you must be a super hero to pull this off, I’m afraid I’m just a mortal person.
As a partner you are directly part of the open source community and you can actively contribute to road maps and the software development. You are not allowed to ask any license fees for the software, so you have to develop all kind of services (hosting, implementation services, consultancy, training, et cetera) around the software and that’s fine. As a partner you pay a percentage of your revenues to the open source organization you represent. But this has a flip side. Everybody else can offer the same services as you. But as an official partner you are more expensive: You have to pay your fee and you have to invest time in the community, the others do not.
But for me the most important reason not to go for an open source strategy are the end users. Or to be more specific, the people in the end user organization (school, university, company, ministry et cetera) that are in charge of selecting a software solution for the learning needs in their organization. I believe that in their mind open source often equals ‘ free of charge’. This is a terrible simplification of the intentions of a GPL license, but what is worse is that they often make their ‘buying’ decision solely based on that fact. So they don’t choose Moodle because it is an excellent learning solution based on social constructivist principles: No they choose it because you don’t have to pay a license fee. Of the 50 or so Moodle installations we implemented at Stoas in last few years, only a handful of customers choose Moodle for the right reasons. This is the main reason why a lot of Moodle installations are not using Moodle to it’s full potential or even in the way it is meant to be. In general they are just being used to launch a course and that’s it. A real shame. If people have to pay money for a solution they are much more inclined to look at the added value of your tool and base their decision (at least partly) on these factors.
Proprietary but open
Therefore we decided against an open source software development strategy for EasyGenerator, and we choose the old-fashioned proprietary model. But we believe in an open model. Software packages often create a customer lock-in by prohibiting them to export the content (data) to another authoring tool. We don’t want that, so in EasyGenerator it will be possible to export your content in all kind of formats based on open standards like XML, thus enabling you to use other authoring software. EasyGenerator will connect to a whole range of software products and will let you use and re-use your content freely. We aim to faciltate a community who will share their didactical designs and content. In that sense we will be an open platform.