Wednesday, April 03, 2013

3 Reasons Why Open Source Software Delivers Where Proprietary Software Fails

"Yes, you have to pay a fee for my software but I’m going to make sure that it is available, running fast and up-to-date”, says Michael Assad, CEO of Agility CMS, in a recent article of his. The piece explores the differences between Open Source and proprietary content management systems, voicing concerns about OSS and showcasing benefits of proprietary. I don’t agree with Mr Assad at all: In the long term, proprietary software is dead. The whole model is so deeply flawed that I am amazed that people still buy proprietary CMSs. Let me explain why.

Open Source is the better development model

It starts with how a content management system is developed. Nobody ever sees the source code of a proprietary CMS. It is potentially bound to be horrible, because developers can easily and comfortably hide behind their unintelligible, bad code. They make sure they keep their job. In open source, there will always be people looking at your code - and you know it, so you better make sure it is at least decent.

Developers are artists and craftsmen. They want to share their work and discuss the best way to tackle a challenge. They know of the cost of writing bad software. In an open source company, they will avoid it because their name is attached to the code, for everybody to see. Any future employer can look at how they work and if their skills are any good. Does this help writing better code than in a proprietary company? You bet it does. In your company, developers are probably forbidden to show their code to anybody outside the company. That is bad for them, bad for the code and bad for your product.

Open Source is open and extensible by default

Open Source code is written to be extended, because that is how the model works. Our partners can do fantastic custom implementations and extend the CMS according to a client’s need - because the code is there to look at and to be worked with. Closed Source code is written such that it works for a specific functional requirement (especially if you outsource your development!). In the long term, your software will suffocate on its own gluttony (one example of hundreds: Vignette).

Open Source delivers on the promise

Sales of proprietary software over-promise, and the product under-delivers. Always. Never in my 30+ years in business have I seen it the other way round. Why? Because sales gets paid for selling, so they sell anything the customer wants. Then the primary goal becomes to simply hack the stuff to fulfill the sales promise and there it is - another feature in a bloated mess. As long as a feature runs, it is good enough for sales to sell it. But ultimately, it is another nail in the coffin of your proprietary CMS.

With Open Source, you get the better product ...

So here is the way it works for us: our developers are proud of what they do. They share it with everybody who wants to see it. They have open discussions with those that care to engage (you know Joy’s law: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”). This means they are happy and motivated to do the work they do. They build the foundation to help others implement anything they need. This is turn means the system is highly adaptable - the foundation for business agility.

A great product almost sells itself. Not as fast as your sales force can press a proprietary system into the market, but it will spread – by word of mouth. Combine this with a sustainable business model - ours is dual licensing subscription, a business model Magnolia pioneered for applications, which meanwhile is pretty common in the OS world. It allows us to keep costs low, double every two years in size and revenue and have a long term perspective on our business and product, which benefits the customers, the implementation partners and us (we actually sleep well at night).

... and Open Source vendors are the better companies.

Incidentally, most companies these days are externally funded (VC etc). Hard to see how the interest of the financiers aligns with those of the customers of a proprietary CMS. Magnolia never had external funding. We can follow our vision independently.

All these factors allow us to significantly invest in the future of our product, which will address the common concern (also voiced in Assad’s article) that CMSs are too difficult to use. For a glimpse into our biggest release yet (scheduled for June 20) look at And we are not talking Wordpress here, but a platform that powers some of the world's most demanding virtual presences. We are simply, slowly but strongly building the world's best CMS. Not saying we are there yet, but we'll get there. And it being Open Source is a big part of that journey.

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  1. Thanks for honoring my post with a response :)

    I noticed in your post that you mention 'developer' and 'code' several times, but don't once mention the marketer or editors.

    To me, this is the fundamental reason why Agility and some other 'proprietary' software vendors will always have a place - we are focussed on the big picture.

    Agility is designed for everyone - Developers, marketers, designers and editors. For that reason, we will always be loved :)

    This is not the case with most proprietary - or open source CMSs

    1. Thanks for reading it!

      I don't mention marketer or editors in the context of this discussion because they don't build the product. They use it. Of course that doesn't mean you can ignore them when building the software. Like a good architect would think about who will live in the house he builds, so should we as software developers be concerned about those that use it, and I believe that Magnolia has been doing a particularily good job at that over the last 10 years. But here I am concerned about the quality of the house, not its design, if you can follow my analogy ;-)

      I think the main drawback of proprietary software is its general lack of focus on the big picture. Everything is focussed on the short term, the sell, the next quarter. We believe in building the world's best CMS, and in the fact that the process of building it should not be driven by too many short term considerations.

  2. IMO, business model has little to do with customer satisfaction. Making promises and keeping them is it. Leveraging the positives of your chosen model is part of the story and the sale but in the end is nothing. Our industry is nuanced and there are hybrid and purist models on both sides.

    People choose products because of trust that the solution will fulfill their needs be it ego or aspiration or impressing the boss. Apple doesn't go around bitching about Android being OS and all the flaws their, likewise the Google doesn't accept when they are in front of someone who needs to hear that story to satisfy their belief.

    All business models, structures and organizations have risks and benefits and its our job to tell the story to the people with whom that will resonate. Typically, this FUD only resonates in the echo chamber of the CMS space.

    It's time to stop it with the spitball fights and grow up.

    1. Thanks Jay for your thoughts. IMHO the business model does have a lot to do with customer satisfaction. It is hard to satisfy your customers if you have to lay off people or if your projects are cash flow negative. Maybe you should spent some time talking to our customers to see what I mean. And to our partners. While you are at it, ask about how they feel working with proprietary systems, and which model they prefer.

      My thoughts above positively reflect the way I have experienced the CMS world for the last 10 (!) years. And I have worked with customers, did projects, used proprietary CMS's and developed our own, highly successful CMS, so I have seen the space from various angles. I also do speak with those that implement proprietary CMSs, and what I hear is rarely pretty. But I am not hear to bitch about them, I'd rather focus on getting them out of business ;-)

  3. Boris, I've worked with and have spoken to thousands of people about CMSs and the tools they use to manage their websites. Sure there are horrible custom and proprietary CMSs I wouldn't wish on my enemies and I also have experienced a long list of terrible OS CMSs and applications. Open Source is not a guarantee of a great customer result its an attribute that has benefits much like vision and control of good proprietary systems do too.

    My point is your Open Source model works whereas Joomla's model, not so much. Magento's model works, 99% of OS carts suck. Open Source is not a guarantee of satisfaction nor is business model. It's great that Magnolia has happy customers. You you describe Magnolia as a great platform that happens to be OS vs an OS platform that happens to be good. I suspect the former.

    In any case, I think its time to drop prop vs OS discussions that have waned from other software segments. Lets get on with selling tangible benefits. I am not saying never discuss the specific benefits of your OS model in a prospect briefing because sure, lock-in is a risk for proprietary systems but obscurity in OS is almost equally risky under certain circumstances.

    I still think we need to move past it no matter how much the marketer in me knows that fear is an incredible motivator.

    PS: I am not sure I know why I am showing up as unknown. I have very comprehensive Google profile.

    -Jay Gilmore

    1. Thanks again Jay. Your observations are right. Magnolia would be a great company as a proprietary software company as well. And most of all, you are right claiming that we should move on, a topic I long wanted to write about. The fact that we are a "hybrid" in the sense of combining open source and business is a sign of that as well. After all, this discussions was started by a proprietary system, not me ;-)

  4. Happy to be part of the discussion. It feels a little bit like the Java/.NET/PHP discussion...;-)

    I think a lot has already been said about the fact that it is not the discussion about Open Source or Proprietary, but more a business evaluation looking at the requirements, costs, vendor relationship, integration options, features and functions etc. Honestly, I have the feeling that the current CMSs all have their own USPs.

    There are two aspects that I think are more relevant.

    First of all, the success of a product relies heavily on the quality of the implementation. Good CMSs can be implemented in an awful way making the product look bad. I think the availability of a good local partner network should be key to pick a solution not whether it is OS or not.

    Secondly, the discussion should focus much more on open standards. CMSs are delivering a piece of the marketing puzzle providing the web (and sometimes mobile) channel with content. The other parts of the puzzle such as digital asset management, product information management, CRM and ERP should be integrated in one Marketing Execution Platform (MEP) with the CMS as part of it. The ability to integrate is not related to the openness of the code, but more to the standards that are used and the availability of a good described API. This is obviously relevant for all systems within the MEP, but I consider that as a more important part of the solution decision than whether it is Open Source or not.

    Bart Omlo

    1. Thanks Bart for joining the discussion. I agree that Open Source should not be the first requirement when evaluating a software. In the long term, it should be no requirement at all, because all software should be open source, but that is a different story.

      I agree that the implementation partners are very important. That is one of the reasons why Magnolia doesn't do any project implementations – to ensure we get the best partners, we guarantee them that we won't take any of their business. Also, we have been focussing from day one on building software that is extensible, flexible and open because we have seen the other side: implementing projects with CMS's that were not. Since you always need to do significant customizations to generate real value when implementing a CMS (see all my blog posts about Virtual Presence Management), the architecture and openness of a CMS is pretty important to facilitate a good project outcome. It being open source helps, too, because often you will want to implement something that isn't obvious, where no standard exists and where you need to know how things work, so you cab adapt them. In theory, a great API and excellent documentation should suffice. But you know the difference between theory and practice: in theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not ;-)

      - Boris

  5. A good discussion, but there are some logical jumps that I don't quite subscribe to. Seems like you are mixing your view of open source, with the Magnolia approach and some general and vague assumptions. As you know there are BIG and substantial differences from say Alfresco, Magnolia, Umbraco and Typo3.

    In an industry where long term is science fiction and customers have to be concerned about the near <3 year horizon, I fully understand why commercial vendors like Kentico and Sitecore are so succesful and I'm struggling to agree with you that (1) their business is less sustainable than yours (2) customers are always better off with open source


    1. @Janus I love your comment that for the customers "the long term is science fiction". However, for us it is not. As a product manager for Magnolia I can choose between implementing quick wins – "sales features", follow the latest hype, etc. or spending our resources on building a great foundation that will carry us forward for many years to come. Of course, any sensible product manager will try to balance the two. In a sales driven organization, it is hard to ignore the arguments of the sales team: after all, it is easy to sell if you promise that your software does everything the client wants. (Incidentally, we just lost a deal against a competitor that used exactly that tactic). However, such a competitor will be bogged down by maintaining every feature they promised, and in the long term, will not survive because he loses the ability to innovate. I am not saying we at Magnolia can avoid every negative aspect of the way our business works, but at the very least we are very aware of the constraints that stem from different forms of organizations, development models, perspectives and goals.

      Either way, I am happy to have you chirp in.

  6. Anonymous6:05 AM

    Open source software gives surety that they are better as they are developed by many programmers collaborating together to create something impressive as well as useful. Quality and reliability both can be gained through open source software.