It’s Only Rock and Roll

It’s only Rock and Roll, but I like it!
           – Mick Jagger

Copyright is having a tough time in the digital age. New copies of music, movies and software can be created at near zero cost. Some wonder whether it still makes sense to ever charge for content. Over the past century large industries have developed that sell content. These industries resist change. We consumers love our content, but don’t love paying for it. But would all the content we love still exist without payment for copyright?

One solution might be to replace sales of copyrighted material with services that provide access to the content. We could buy tickets to concerts, a service provided by musicians. We could enjoy streaming music services via subscriptions or supported by advertising. Similarly, we could access software as a service in the cloud. Some companies, like Google, create proprietary software yet don’t make money off it by selling its copyright, but only through services. That’s a great model, but is it the only way forward?

Not yet, it seems. In both music and software, sometimes folks still want to own a copy. They want their favorite tracks on their mp3 players without ongoing fees. Likewise, people might reasonably choose to buy software that they can run on their own hardware.

Businesses may want a reliable vendor, but also don’t want to be locked-in to that vendor’s software.

To satisfy this demand, a hybrid product-and-services model is most common in music. Few well-known musicians survive on concert revenues alone. Most sell songs as well. Those musicians who survive on performance income tend to be folks who play at weddings, not those you listen to at home.

I’m in the open source software business. I work with other developers to create software that folks can freely copy. The software itself is not sold, but it’s used by many, and we somehow need to be compensated, so we can feed our families and still do this work. For many years I was an independent contractor, selling my services, extending open source software. Like a wedding musician, I didn’t have long-term relationships with my clients.

As businesses come to depend on open source software, many would like to have a relationship with a vendor. A vendor can indemnify them against lawsuits related to the software, resolve problems promptly, and extend the software in specific directions. Businesses want a vendor that’s financially solid so that it can rely on it, now and into the future.

While businesses may want a reliable vendor, they don’t want to be locked-in to that vendor’s software as they often are with proprietary software. Open source can inhibit such lock-in, since different vendors can support the same software, and businesses can then select a vendor that provides them the greatest value outside of that software.

Cloudera is a vendor of the open source Apache Hadoop software platform. We provide support services for that platform, and with those, some proprietary software. We don’t want to lock our customers in, so we don’t provide proprietary software that’s used directly by their applications. All application code is based only on the open source platform, so applications will never be locked-in to Cloudera. Instead we provide proprietary software that our customers use to install, configure and monitor the open source platform. This software is an extension of our support services. We give our customers tools that make it easier for them to deploy the open source software, and also for us to support it. These tools are an integral part of our commercial support, validating supported installations and configurations, and automatically supplying context to problem reports. They are the “secret sauce” of our service business, helping to make our commercial support the best in the industry.

We believe that this combination best permits us to become a financially viable company that our customers can rely on to support their mission-critical needs for the long term. A rock band could limit itself to a pure services model, surviving only on tour revenues, eschewing all copyright income. Or they could try to reach the widest audience possible, combining service income from concerts with copyright income from sales, giving its fans what they want. In 50 years, Cloudera doesn’t want to be like that guy who sang at your wedding, but instead hopes to be like the Rolling Stones, as a core figure of the technology world as the Stones are of Rock and Roll.

Doug Cutting is Cloudera’s chief architect, a founder of the Apache Lucene and Apache Hadoop projects, and the current chair of the Apache Software Foundation.

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