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The Open-Source Business?

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In response to its growing popularity among businesses and to the dismay of some in its loyal base of volunteer programmers, Mozilla announced last week its launch of a for-profit subsidiary, whose profits would go straight back into further development of its popular, free software products, such as the web browser Firefox and e-mail client Thunderbird. Mozilla's announcement has incited a number of grievances from its wide base of individual programmers, who voluntarily work on its open source code and say they feel betrayed by the organization's "selling out" to the needs of the mainstream and business users.

This seems to be the latest occurrence in a trend highlighted recently in technology news sites and in Monday's
Wall Street Journal
: nonprofit organizations like Mozilla and Linux, which offer free, open-source software and are mainly supported by donations, are expanding out of their traditional user base of programming enthusiasts and becoming more popular among the mainstream and businesses. In fact, Mozilla's web browser Firefox has become a viable competitor of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and now controls 10% of total Internet usage.

Many small businesses adopt these increasingly user-friendly programs because they offer better security and lower costs than comparable Microsoft applications. Large companies also use them, including Amazon and Google .

While going for-profit looks like a sensible move for Mozilla, who could use the extra funding to expand their line of applications, provide better user support, and pay the energy bills, some of the individuals who volunteer their time to improve the software's source code feel like they've been forgotten. On a Mozilla website, MozillaZine , some programmers responded to a statement from the organization, which stressed it was not "selling out," by saying they felt betrayed by Mozilla's surprise decision to develop a for-profit subsidiary. They thought it went against the principles of the underground community Mozilla first inspired.

Incidentally, that rebellious spirit of organizations like Mozilla also appeals to small business owners. One owner once said his company switched over to Linux from Windows simply because it seemed "more entrepreneurial."

But as organizations like Mozilla and Linux grow to accommodate their newfound business user base, will they alienate the individuals who made them what they are? Without that

loyal base of volunteer programmers to work on constantly improving the source code, will their applications -- and ultimately, their new niche of business users -- start to suffer?

Last updated: Aug 10, 2005




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