I recently revisited my “open source as a SaaS endgame” theory quoting a news about another web app releasing their code under an open source license before shutting down the shop. As I do with many of my posts here in Cloud Ave, I was wearing my evangelist hat and it resulted in the crux of the post getting hyped up a bit. It appears to have given an impression that I am predicting the SaaS app to flourish if it had an open source endgame.
Matthew Aslett, of 451 Group who writes the CAOS Theory blog, disputes this and makes a very important point.
with open source there is life after death – if there is a committed group of developers prepared to put in the effort to keep the project alive. For many open source projects that’s a pretty big “if”.
I completely agree with Matthew. Unless, these open source projects have a strong developer community, it is as good as “Living Dead”. As he points out in his blog post, projects like Mindquarry, Zoto (the ones I have pointed out to make my case), Tr.im, etc. have been lying dormant in their repositories without any development activities. Clearly, under open source philosophy, it means that there are not many people actively using these applications. As Matthew points out, even though these projects are alive due to their open source licensing, they are living dead.
In fact, I would extend these arguments to all of the open source software. We have seen so many open source projects that die on arrival at either Sourceforge or Google code. The biggest reason being the developers who start these projects couldn’t sustain it either due to financial reasons or lack of interest. The number of active developers in a project has some kind of correlation with the number of active users of the application. It is quite natural that the lack of enthusiasm for these apps makes them dead on arrival at these repositories. Extending even further, such “dead on arrival” cases are not just unique to open source software but it is also the case with all software. We have seen many proprietary software companies closing shop even before they get their first customer. So, the bottom line is that any software, irrespective of whether it is open source or proprietary or SaaS, needs a strong user base and vibrant developer community/vendor to flourish.
I completely agree with Matthew’s “the big ‘if’ factor” for the success of any open source software. But, I have put forward my theory from a completely different angle. It is about the issue of business continuity. The impact of a SaaS vendor going out of business is huge for any type of business. It is even more striking for the small businesses. In the case of traditional desktop based applications, after a software vendor goes out of business, the users can continue using the software and plan their migration at their own pace. The SaaS world is different. The data lies on the vendors’ servers (cloud) and, as we have seen in the case of many defunct SaaS providers, they only offer a very short time frame to recover the data. This affects the business continuity. If the app is available in the form of open source, the users can just put it on one their own servers or on the cloud and continue using it till they could safely migrate over to another application.
Yes, open standards for the data can solve some of these issues. However, it is much easier to continue using the same application than moving to a new one because it saves money for the businesses in terms of migration costs, integration and training. Add to it the amount of time lost in the process, we have a very strong case for having an open source endgame. Even if the above said costs are not a big issue, there will be some badly needed niche apps which may not be available from any other vendor. Open source becomes crucial in such cases too.
Even though the open source licensing of SaaS app doesn’t guarantee that the app will flourish after the demise of the original developer/vendor, it lives long enough to ensure business continuity and, with some luck, it can even flourish. I still feel it is still a better option to have open source as an endgame for SaaS. Even if the open source version is of no use to the users, the very fact that it will be available as open source helps the users trust SaaS more than what they do now. It gives them a confidence that their business continuity will not be affected with a move to SaaS.