Yesterday, SAP’s CTO Vishal Sikka called for a more open approach to the Java standardization process (JCP), asking SUN to stop ruling it with a heavy hand. Not surprisingly, he got some pushback using the argument that SAP isn’t one to talk about being more open, given its slow involvement with open source.
I don’t think that this is a fair critique. SAP has always provided the source code of its main business applications suite to user-customers as part of a commercial license, and users have always customized SAP’s business suite to their heart’s content. In fact, it is the only way to make it work for their needs.
Contrast this with commercial open source firms using the open core model, the emerging dominant business model in this space. Here, the core of the software is open source and free, but if you want to use it professionally, you will almost certainly need to pay for a commercial license, which will give you the missing bits and pieces that make the software usable in an enterprise context in the first place. These missing pieces are not open source and are not provided to the community for free. This works, because hobbyists or low-end users typically don’t need these features.
So what’s the difference between SAP and software firms utilizing an open core business model? It is not the lock-in. Once you start modifying closed source software, whether it comes from SAP or an open source firm as part of their commercial offering, you get, well, locked-in. Migration pains will depend on the extent of your modifications, but not on whether it is SAP or some other company.
The only fair critique is to compare SAP with commercial offerings that don’t hold anything back. But firms with those offerings (like most other) have still to demonstrate viability on the level of an SAP. I don’t expect to see this anytime soon.
Disclosure: I used to work for SAP in the Silicon Valley where I led the open source and Web 2.0 research efforts. I am now a Professor of Computer Science specializing in open source at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.