It's an entire class of free applications, distributed by vendors that will sell you support, enhancements and even consulting services. This category seems the most promising of the open-source business models out there. The best-known example is the MySQL database, from vendor MySQL AB, which sponsors the product as an open-source project. The vendor's support technicians know their stuff. Its licensing fees are reasonable enough to preclude commercial vendors from competing on price.
The model of free applications with optional support is so compelling that Oracle has picked up parts of it. For example, the company now offers to support your entire installation, not just the Oracle software.
But these vendors bring a new edge to competition. And the best of them make the most of it. In the open-source community, not only are people willing to write bug fixes, haunt news lists and write documentation for weak areas, but they're also willing to create Web pages describing how to install and configure their favorite open-source product, complete with details on what problems to expect.
Thanks to this cadre of willing support folks, a good open-source company can focus on adding value for end users. MySQL has built a useful and user-friendly management interface for its database. It also has licensed SAP-DB from SAP and is merging parts of SAP's high-volume database into MySQL, which means more functionality. And last month, the vendor introduced MySQL Administrator, an enhanced management environment.
This kind of innovation will compel commercial database vendors like Oracle and IBM to make even greater strides to maintain their edge. Competition from inexpensive open-source products will drive many new developments over the next decade.