MongoDB has been known as an open source success story, but that depends on what you think open source actually means.
Well, that was refreshing. In a moment of vivid candor, MongoDB CEO Dev Ittycheria set aside any pretense of open source community building and made it clear that open source, for MongoDB, is all about money: "We open sourced as a freemium strategy; to drive adoption."
Peace, love, and cash
Not that we should be surprised. While open source companies tend to do a lot of hand-waving about community, the reality is that invariably they mean "community of users," not of contributing developers. Very few open source projects (community-driven or company-driven) can boast a broad-based coalition of developers unconcerned by cash. Vanishingly few.
Even so, Ittycheria's comments are remarkable for how baldly they state this truth. On the one hand, he talks tough about the company's introduction of the Server Side Public License as a way to batter the hopes of cloud vendors who might otherwise "borrow" MongoDB's code:
We're very committed to the open source communities and building a free product that people use. [But] what we don't think is reasonable is for a cloud vendor to come and take a free version, monetize and not give anything back.
But he then turns around and says, in fact, MongoDB doesn't actually want anything back:
[Speaking of Yahoo open sourcing Hadoop and Facebook open sourcing Cassandra] The big difference is that those decisions were made to basically get the community to do crowdsourced R&D: say 'hey I built something interesting; it's not really core to my business, so we've put in the public domain'. By definition the licence has to be very permissive because you want to encourage people to develop it and make it better.
But MongoDB was built by MongoDB….
[W]e didn't open source it to get help from the community, to make the product better. We open sourced as a freemium strategy; to drive adoption.
Got that? Other projects might try to encourage developers to contribute, thereby pooling innovation. Not MongoDB. All the innovation comes from its core engineering team. In the MongoDB world, community simply means "people who use the software." It doesn't mean what we normally associate with open source.
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As ugly as that sentiment may seem, it's (mostly) true. Not completely, because MongoDB has had some external contributions. For example, Justin Dearing responded to Ittycheria's claim thus: "As someone that has made a (very tiny) contribution to the [MongoDB] server source code, this is kind of insulting to hear [it] said this way." There's also the inconvenient truth that part of MongoDB's popularity has been the broad array of drivers available. While the company writes the primary drivers used with MongoDB, the company relies on third-party developers to pick up the slack on lesser-used drivers. Those drivers, though less used, still contribute to the overall value of MongoDB.
But it's largely true, all the same. And it's probably even more true of all the other open source companies that have been lining up to complain about public clouds like AWS "stealing" their code. None of these companies is looking for code contributions. Not really. When AWS, for example, has tried to commit code, they've been rebuffed.
No, what these open source vendors want is cash. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's stop pretending they're aggrieved parties because other developers have exercised their rights under open source licenses to use their code. If what you want is users, you can't complain when they show up on the doorstep.
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So should these companies like MongoDB keep using open source licenses?
In the case of MongoDB, it has already moved on from open source with the SSPL. Given that the company doesn't need (or, apparently, want) contributions back from its community of users (beyond cash for subscriptions), it's an interesting question--one that John Mark Walker has posed--whether MongoDB ever needed to use an open source license (the AGPL) in the first place, given that "Source available licenses would accomplish the same things" without the specter of an avaricious cloud coming to use the code to build cloud services.
The answer is almost certainly "yes." Why? Because open source is what makes that freemium approach work, because it has meant something. While there are calls for the Open Source Definition to be updated today, the reason MongoDB could go from $0 to $350 million in revenue is largely a function of adoption driven by a common understanding of what open source means, and the freedoms it affords. Developers downloaded MongoDB, not because the source was available, but because they roughly understood what their obligations were under the AGPL.
Will this continue under the SSPL? Very possibly, but arguably because the halo effect of MongoDB's decade of open source will continue, whatever the current status. Many developers (and the companies that employ them) still think of MongoDB as open source--they're unaware of the license changes. And since they're just users, not contributors, that ignorance may persist for a long time.
Ironically, then, MongoDB and the open source companies that aspire to its financial success depend upon the open source halo effect, even as they run away from the fundamental freedoms of open source.
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