Observations from where technology meets business

Is Bluenog’s Use of Open Source Sustainable?

There have been some recent interesting posts discussing Bluenog, a company which sells the Bluenog ICE (integrated collaborative environment). This is a product consisting of a portal framework, content management system, a report generator, a wiki, and a calendar all working within a secured environment using a granular permission model and is capable of integrating with enterprise single sign-on systems. The system looks to be very Enterprise 2.0-ish and may provide a useful intranet environment that brings together the breadth of information needed by knowledge workers. I had a chance to look at the product at the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference and talk with the company in an extended briefing. The product should get the attention of many IT managers.

While the Bluenog ICE product itself looks interesting, it is the business model the company uses to develop it that is causing a controversy and, in my opinion, raises some flags. Bluenog advertises itself as an open source company (or, rather, that is what most people walk away thinking when they have seen or read about the company). To be precise, here is what Bluenog says about their use of open source:

Bluenog ICE leverages several open source CMS, open source collaboration, open source portal and open source BI projects. These projects provide the building blocks for Bluenog ICE and allow us to provide tightly integrated solutions at a fraction of the cost of traditional alternatives.

The web page linked above lists a total of 19 open source projects as being used within the Bluenog product so, clearly, Bluenog is a consumer open source software. However, although the distinction may be subtle, the way Bluenog uses open source is different than what most enterprise IT managers may be expecting.

First, let’s be clear, Bluenog sells a proprietary product. Bluenog does not make the resulting source code of their commercial product available via an open source license. Paying customers get a copy of the source code but this offers none of the benefits, such as transparency and choice, that enterprises can gain from leveraging open source. What can you do with a copy of the source code? Open source becomes powerful when it is out in a community, gaining new features, getting security flaws fixed, etc.

Second, the only company that has benefited from Bluenog’s approach to open source is Bluenog itself, not its customers. But the sustainability of that benefit is questionable. Let me explain.

A number of the open source products used, which provide core ICE features, require significant changes to work in the Bluenog framework and these changes are not contributed to any sort of open source community. In essence, major parts of Bluenog are built from forks of open source products that are folded into their proprietary framework. Any enhancements or security patches from the originating open source community would have to be manually integrated into Bluenog because they are now separate products. For example, Bluenog is built with a version of the Hippo CMS that is one major version behind the main project.

So the question enterprises should be asking is this: Is Bluenog’s development model sustainable? Arguably, other companies have used open source this way. For example, IBM’s Lotus Symphony is based off an old version of Open Office. However, Bluenog is different for two reasons. First, Bluenog isn’t IBM. They are a startup and have limited resources. Second, they are creating a whole new integrated product based off of the amalgamation of several open source products, which sounds like a big integration challenge. IBM is re-basing the next release of Lotus Symphony on Open Office 3. Can Bluenog say the same about Hippo CMS? Do they care about future versions of Hippo CMS or are they content with keeping the older code, essentially turning these pieces into their own proprietary code?

If I were an enterprise IT manager considering Bluenog I wouldn’t let their use of open source sway me at all and evaluate them as a proprietary software vendor. I would also start asking questions about how they plan on sustaining the development of the product. Bluenog’s approach to using open source may have helped initially to get the first product out the door faster. However, the enterprise software market is a marathon not a sprint.

This is a repost of a blog originally posted on the Collaboration and Content Strategies Blog