Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The future of OSS companies

Today marks another joyous day for commercial open source companies. Xensource has been bought by Citrix for 500M. Yep, that's half a billion. For a commercial open source company making less than 10M in revenues this year and pretty much zero last year (rumors say). That's a huge multiplier, on any standard (the only acquisition with a higher multiplier I know was YouTube and, maybe, Skype). It comes after the JBoss acquisition, which already had a big multiplier (but this one beats it by a long margin).

Now, I was reading Alex Fletcher's blog this morning (an analyst at Entiva), where he defines "The five phases of maturity for open source software ecosystems". For those lacking hyperlink clicking abilities:
  • Phase 1: Purely open source stage. The technology doesn't feature any commercial support and may or may have reached a level of production-ready stability. [...] Example(s) - open source implementations of Jingle
  • Phase 2: Entrance into the marketplace. Often marked by the initial offering of commercial services or "productization" of open source code. [...]. Example(s) - Untangle
  • Phase 3: Momentum takeoff drives growth. A midpoint in the evolution of an ecosystem [...]. Example(s) - Alfresco, Funambol, Zimbra
  • Phase 4: Predictability. After the ecosystem reaches an invariable point of cultivation, momentum transfers into sustained equilibrium. [...]. Example(s) - Red Hat Linux, MySQL (still in the early stages)
  • Phase 5: Emergence as full-fledged platform. The transformation from ecosystem into platform represents the highest form of an evolved open source ecosystem, in addition to its final maturation phase. [..]
Now, Xensource is definitely in Phase 3, together with the other three in the list and surely a few more. JBoss was there as well, when it was bought. Same for Sourcefire or Sleepycat.

Two questions arise in my mind:
  1. Will anybody make it to phase 4 or will we be all snatched by a proprietary vendor before making it? Considering all of us have VC investors on board, I just do not see how anyone would be able to resist a 100x multiplier...
  2. Will anybody make it to phase 5, eventually, and become a huge company like Microsoft?
Looking at what is happening in the market, either proprietary vendors are "killing" open source companies or open source is becoming such a basic need that it will blend in the mainstream (I believe the latter is true). If this happens, there will be a few companies getting to phase 4...

What about phase 5? We already have only MySQL and RedHat that could make it, but I always thought MySQL will be a target for an acquisition one day. RedHat could become the big pure open source play. But it is at risk to be the only one. Maybe a pure open source dominating player will never exist...

Wow, that's a sad thought in a joyous day :-)