Envisioning an Open Source Product Marketplace: Could it Work?

 What I've learned in 18 months of Drupal product management is this: monetization in open source communities is prickly. You need only whisper the words "app store" at a pub in Croydon to start a full geek-on-geek brawl about monetization in Drupal and its potential ill effects on the open source community. Monetization of products in Drupal is scary -- done right, it could build a vibrant economy around the open source software we know and love, making it stronger while people make a living.

Karen Borchert
#Drupal | Posted

What I've learned in 18 months of Drupal product management is this: monetization in open source communities is prickly. You need only whisper the words "app store" at a pub in Croydon to start a full geek-on-geek brawl about monetization in Drupal and its potential ill effects on the open source community. Monetization of products in Drupal is scary -- done right, it could build a vibrant economy around the open source software we know and love, making it stronger while people make a living. Done wrong, and it could alienate the community, deprecate innovation, and ultimately harm the open source project. Seriously, I realize I'm just waiting for the comments to get filled up with accusations of trying to destroy Drupal.

So, I get it. It's prickly. But the truth is, people and companies have been "monetizing" in Drupal for as long as its been around. Thousands of us happily sell services and build custom Drupal code for other people for money. We seem to be generally okay with selling premium themes and designs for Drupal. Our community boasts paid hosting, paid support, paid storage, paid security, and paid accessibility around Drupal sites. Some of us even monetize by getting "sponsorship" to work on and improve the open source modules and tools we all know and use.

Most of these revenue models revolve around services -- where time is our currency and hours worked = dollars earned. It's only natural that the community is starting to ask: what about products? Products offer the promise of "passive revenue" -- the ability to leverage our time into ongoing and recurring revenue streams; to "make money while we sleep." It's the stuff that venture capital dreams are made of.

But the issues are tricky -- if you "sell" code that is GPL (which is allowed), someone can turn around and offer it for free. And if we start packaging up Drupal code and putting a price on it, will anyone keep developing the stuff that's free and open source?

We faced these hard questions last month at the Drupal Distro Summit prior to SandCamp in San Diego. About 50 people -- all companies and individuals involved in distributions in the Drupal community -- joined up to discuss the issues facing distributions and products in Drupal. One after the other, distribution owners asking the question "I built this thing, now how can I realize the benefit of this investment?" We discussed business models at length, and saw ideas emerge around "premium" or "enterprise" distribution versions, apps, SaaS offerings, franchise models, and paid support. Not surprisingly, no silver bullet business model emerged at the end of the day. What did emerge was a clear indication that members of the community who have built companies and make their living selling work around Drupal are interested in seeing a viable way to monetize Drupal products, without deprecating (and possibly, by boosting) Drupal's most important asset: its community.

At Phase2, we agree: a product marketplace in Drupal that strengthens the community and makes building in Drupal economically feasible for more people would be a good thing. A marketplace where developers, site builders, and Drupal "consumers" alike could find the products and services they're interested in; offer their own products and services; and evaluate Drupal products on their merits -- the quality of the code, the reliability of the provider, the reputation of the developer -- is a marketplace we'd like to participate in.

How to accomplish a product marketplace, however, is quite another matter. Spoiler alert: I don't have the answer. But I do think there are three things that I think are most important in a healthy open source product marketplace:

1. The marketplace is not owned or dominated by any one company;

2. The marketplace does not in any way subvert or replace the open source ethic; and

3. The market places a high value on community contribution. And walks that walk. I'll explain.

First, an open marketplace that truly encourages competition and merit-based products in Drupal won't work if it's sponsored or owned by a single company. We'll set aside the fact that the effort to build that marketplace would require more time than any one of us can devote. Just as in the development of open source software, collaborative group of companies, freelancers, and individuals will better represent the needs of all than a single company or person ever can. The product of that collaboration will be more fair, better vetted, and a representation of everyone's needs. This marketplace concept can be (and should be) a compliment to what Drupal.org, the Drupal Association or the community at large can offer in it's current concepts and not a replacement.

Second, a marketplace for open source products should work with and not around the open source model. That means most modules, themes, install profiles will remain free and open and GPL licensed. Things sold in a marketplace would be enhancements and services with non conflicting goals.

Third, a marketplace should place value (as in actual, measurable value) on contributions to the open source platform itself in order to be mutually beneficial to both the community and the product's seller. If people choosing a Drupal distribution for their web site could also see how much that product's developer had contributed back to Drupal -- how many modules, how many patches, how many commits, how many documents written -- wouldn't it serve the dual purpose of rewarding community contribution and ensuring a high level of knowledge about the platform itself? If community contribution becomes part of the currency, rather than an after-thought or "nice to have," there's an opportunity and an incentive to build the community and the economy around this platform simultaneously.

None of us have all the answers to make this happen perfectly. But if we start from a few ideals -- where collaboration, contribution, and the open source spirit are valued by the marketplace -- it's not a far leap to monetized Drupal products that serve the community while filling a real need in the market. Next week, we'll be joining teams from around the world at the Drupal Product Summit in Rome (and if you can join us, you should). I'm hoping that the conversation can turn from "how do we each support our own products?" to "what could an open source product marketplace look like?" and further, "could we achieve it, together?" If this community has proven anything, it's that together, we can create a collaborative place for people to build amazing software and make a living doing it with our services. So why not products?

Karen Borchert