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With open source, free isn't always a bargain

Big names like IBM, BEA Systems and Computer Associates have opened up portions of their proprietary product lines as open source alternatives. But does a free label necessarily mean users should snatch it up?

Today, more independent software vendors (ISVs) are experimenting with open source. They've seen the writing on the wall and want to join in the fray. However, while this means more open source options are available to users, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea to implement one.

[This] is an effort on part of vendors to produce excitement on the part of products that may not have had it [before.]
Paul Kirby
Research DirectorAMR Research Inc.

Experts warn that if users wouldn't have considered paying for it in the first place, it's probably not worth getting it now just because it's free.

Paul Kirby, a research director with Boston-based AMR Research Inc., said ISVs are delivering once costly portions of their software portfolio for free, but most of these products are lightweight versions of successful versions or are products that may not have seen success as commercial products.

"[This] is an effort on part of vendors to produce excitement on the part of products that may not have had it [before]," Kirby said, adding that users should not be tempted by such an offer unless they can demonstrate a positive need for the software's functionality.

Big name character change

In recent months, several large vendors have introduced, or "recharacterized" portions of their product line as free open source software.

Examples include San Jose, Calif.-based BEA Systems Inc.'s Beehive, a subset of its Java development environment; IBM Cloudscape, an embeddable Java database to the open source Apache Software Foundation; and Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates International Inc.'s Ingres database.

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However, while it appears exciting on the service, Kirby points out that the most profitable products are being left out of the open source discussion, such as IBM's DB2. Big Blue may have donated Cloudscape 5.0 to Apache, but it says DB2 is off limits.

Who can blame them? Big ISVs aren't about to give up big profits.

It's open source 101, do the math

Kirby said that ultimately vendors will pretty much have the same story, so users need to do some research. He advises users to take a hard look at the history of the product that's now being offered as open source.

"Ask vendors about their existing customer base … are they looking to still be involved in product, or are they kind of casting it off," Kirby said. "What are their long-term plans for it -- is there going to be an advanced version that they are selling?"

Kirby advises users to consider going with something familiar, like pieces of a product line they've already dealt with or heard of. Chances are if no one has heard of a product, its history as a commercial product was poor.

Kirby also advises users be wary of the "goodwill" factor, when a vendor open sources a product merely to demonstrate its benevolence toward the open source community. This usually means a vendor has chosen a product it never cared for to begin with.

In the end, open source should allow companies to field more options and bring their prices down. Inexpensive or free software can appear tempting at face value, but further information is essential because open source does not automatically make a product a necessity.

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