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SugarCRM CEO Roberts: On Microsoft and open source CRM

SugarCRM has taken on proprietary vendors with much success. Now CEO John Roberts believes the old guard systems are set to be surpassed permanently by open source.

As the CEO of SugarCRM Inc., John Roberts is the head of one of the signature open source companies in existence today.

Based in Cupertino, Calif., SugarCRM is a provider of commercial customer relationship management, or CRM, software for open source platforms. At SugarCRM, Roberts oversees a growing global customer portfolio that includes the 200 projects spawned by the community surrounding his open source CRM application. He even maintains an expanding technical partnership with the Dark Prince of the OSS community – Microsoft.

Roberts' success is related to the open source model itself: many eyes sifting though code, catching bugs and vulnerabilities, and working as one to weed out the weak points.

In a recent interview with News Writer Jack Loftus, Roberts spoke about why the open source model is changing the way software is being developed and what it's like working with Microsoft's open source liaison Bill Hilf.

What are some of the trends today in open source and Linux?

John Roberts: It was our philosophy from Day One to kind of re-evaluate the way in which software operates. Our belief from the beginning was to put the software in front of the sales force, as opposed to having the sales team out front selling. What we are seeing with this approach is that it continues to be a more innovative model for development than the traditional proprietary model, where all software is developed in a kind of black box or with limited deployment options. The days of the $300,000 sales rep taking people out to dinner and selling them software are over. Business people and IT people are doing their own due diligence, and it's no longer as hard as it used to be.

Lots of proprietary companies are jumping into the playing field with free versions of their products. What are your thoughts about that?

Roberts: I think it really demonstrates that open source is absolutely having an impact. They certainly would not be doing something like that if they didn't have to. It's interesting to see that they are allowing people access to these applications because a lot of these code bases are older code bases.

The difference between this approach and open source with what some proprietary companies are now doing is that when someone begins an open source project, from Day One the source code has been visible, so it takes a different development path. It takes on a different orientation than when writing source code that no one will ever see. There is freedom to express ideas on the part of an open source developer, and there is an attribution aspect as well. In the freeware [express version] scene, that kind of attitude just doesn't happen. I think there is less incentive. This all validates that open source is becoming a real threat for proprietary applications.

What's the deal with on-demand CRM?

Roberts: There is a notion today that on-demand by itself is a competitive differentiator and is rapidly turning into a commodity. When looking at some of the big on-demand players, they are spending more on sales and marketing than they do on engineering. Eight years ago if someone wanted to build on-demand environments, they needed to spend millions to create that environment. They needed to create these big monolithic systems. Today, that's still true, but now you can build highly scalable on-demand systems using Linux and Windows clusters and can give more power and control than you could even when you could build those monolithic systems seven or eight years ago.

On-demand is rapidly becoming a commodity and, therefore, you have to question how long on-demand vendors can continue to justify their price because the technology really isn't as complex as it was eight years ago. In fact, what we are seeing now is that these older systems are starting to fall apart. There is more system downtime, more going off air and taking every customer influence with them.

Earlier this year SugarCRM announced a technical collaboration with Microsoft. I'd like to hear a bit about that experience.

Roberts: The decision was all about choice for the customer, and it is the same as with customer choice today with databases and other environments. In no way do we want to lock in customers with a proprietary environment. Windows is a great platform and is heavily adopted, but at the same time we remain 100% committed to Linux and Oracle. The common denominator is choice.

More on SugarCRM and Port 25:

Microsoft exec calls for calm on Port 25 web site

Golden's Rules: How to modify SugarCRM safely

How does SugarCRM --- or any open source company -- continue its growth in the Windows market?

Roberts: Some degree of marketing and sales is critical, but at the same time we must listen to the community. That includes putting out an incredibly stable open source project with professional and free editions and supporting Microsoft.

As far as our development around the Microsoft platform, it does feel like tremendous demand for it. We look at it as delivering something more as a result of a pull from market as opposed to a company pushing an application on the market. And that shows, I think that today something like 35% of our deployments run on the Windows platform.

Have you been following Port 25 -- Microsoft's web site, led by Bill Hilf, designed to communicate with the open source community?

Roberts: I have been working closely with Bill Hilf, although I haven't visited that site. I think Microsoft and this whole Shared Source Initiative and looking at licensing does embody the core principal of what the open source movement is about.

I think they are doing admirable job with a series of Windows licenses that embodies the sprit of the movement. There are a lot of open source licenses out there, and 98% of them share the same core tenants. I look at Microsoft shared source licenses and it reflects some of the same ideals.

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