It has now been a little over 4 years since we announced the availability of a professionally supported commercially licensed edition of the DotNetNuke platform. The introduction of a commercial version was done in an attempt to find a sustainable business model; a model which could provide us with the resources we need as project steward to accelerate development and adoption of the platform, as well as preserve and strengthen the symbiotic relationship between all of the stakeholders in our open source community.
I will admit it has not been without its share of challenges, as “balance” tends to be an elusive and subjective ideal – an ideal which only has a chance of being achieved through transparency and good communication, as it is really the “perception” of balance amongst the various ecosystem constituents which ultimately drives success or failure. However, as a company grows and matures there is a natural tendency for it to become more insular as it focuses its efforts on its own sustainability, which leads to a decline in external engagement. And without continuous engagement there is the high likelihood that knowledge gaps can occur, and it is in these gaps where fear, uncertainty, and doubt will take root and multiply. It is the responsibility of the steward to recognize these signs as early as possible, and mitigate them through clear communication and actions which reinforce and preserve the delicate ecosystem balance.
One of the things which has come to our attention recently is the fact that we have done a rather poor job over the past 4 years of clearly and publicly stating our intentions and long term commitment to the DNN platform and community. The danger of being too close to something for too long is that you sometimes rely too much on history and make assumptions that your goals and intentions are obvious; totally forgetting that an ecosystem is in a constant state of change. As a result, it is important to regularly take a step back and publicly reinforce the values and ideals so that they are 100% clear to all members of the community. In the past we have often used our user conferences as an opportunity to share this type of information. Unfortunately, these events happen infrequently and only reach a very small portion of our overall ecosystem. Our outreach efforts need to be much more visible and pervasive for them to be effective.
DNN is an open source platform. It is the open source model which has allowed this ecosystem to grow and flourish for over a decade now. In its most basic form, an open source model is based on the foundational principle of “freedom”. Each open source project has its own interpretation of this ideal which is what makes each community unique in terms of their culture and values. In the DNN community, we have always believed that anyone, regardless of their technical skills or financial means, should be able to create and maintain a highly functional web presence, and be able to easily customize and extend it to meet their needs. We have also always embraced and encouraged entrepreneurship and believe that commercial activities are a critical element in the success of our ecosystem. Our desire to be genuinely empowering is rooted in the selfless philosophy that success is a result of creating opportunities for others – which we refer to as the “abundance mentality”. It is a belief that by working together and making a positive contribution everyday, that there is an opportunity for everyone to win. For DNN, it is important to understand that our open source platform is not who we are; rather it is a manifestation of our philosophy and our culture, albeit an important one, as our core values are demonstrated and enabled in some very specific ways through the open source project, including licensing, distribution, and contribution.
The DNN platform is available under a standard open source MIT license. This is one of the most permissive and liberal open source licenses available, and allows the software to be freely used in both commercial and non-commercial applications without restriction. The MIT license was chosen for the project back in 2003, and it has largely been responsible for the mass adoption of the technology worldwide since. While other open source projects have sometimes changed their licenses over time to achieve their business goals, we believe that the MIT license is the optimal license for maintaining the “abundance mentality” spirit of DNN, and as a result there are no plans to ever change the DNN platform open source license.
On that note, people sometimes confuse an “open source” model with a “freemium” model. Although they do share one common characteristic ( ie. they are both based on the availability of a product or online service that anyone can utilize free of cost ) there are some very significant philosophical differences between the two approaches. A “freemium” model is generally based on a software application or online service that has very restricted functionality and limited or no opportunity for customization or extensibility ( as this is what the “premium” application or service provides ). An “open source” model is built around a highly functional open source product; a product licensed under an open source license that provides significant freedom, including the ability for developers to customize and extend the product to meet their needs. So in summary, a “freemium” model is built around a philosophy of scarcity and restrictions, and an “open source” model is built around a philosophy of abundance and freedom. So in this respect, these terms and business models could not be more opposite from one another.
The DNN platform is officially distributed by DNN Corp. We take responsibility for the quality of platform releases, maintaining a predictable release cadence, ensuring the most recent versions of the software are available simultaneously through all official distribution channels, managing and validating software defects as they are reported, dealing with security vulnerabilities, and protecting the integrity of the brand to ensure that consumers can trust the integrity of the product. This is a role we take seriously and are comfortable performing, as we have been doing this for many years and have assembled a skilled team of dedicated resources to ensure it happens reliably and consistently.
Since the introduction of a commercial edition in 2009, DNN Corp has distributed multiple versions of the DNN software. However from a technical perspective, this does not mean they are actually constructed as completely independent products. Rather, we take advantage of the superior architecture of the DNN system to create multiple distributions based on the same core platform. This is accomplished by taking advantage of the various extensibility points that are available to anyone who uses the platform. The DNN platform provides all of the core services, public APIs, and consistent user experience across all of our product editions. The open source distribution is built on top of the DNN platform and includes the management features essential for creating a highly functional web presence. The commercial solutions are also built on top of the DNN platform and include integrated functionality that is designed to satisfy specific business problems or achieve more advanced business goals.
Some people might wonder why there is even a need for commercial distributions at all, so it would probably be useful to provide some more context. One of our goals is to make the software available to the largest number of users possible. For a variety of larger organizations, it is challenging for them to use software that is not available with a traditional software license agreement that includes legal assurances from an established vendor and professional customer support services. So to satisfy the needs of these customers and remove the impediments for them to use the DNN software, we offer commercial editions. In addition, it is important to recognize that every successful open source project with mass adoption requires some level of funding to provide and manage the infrastructure, services, and resources required. There are numerous ways this can be accomplished, but the basic goal is to try and create a sustainable business model. The optimal business model should be strongly aligned with your project values, allow you to focus on the development of the product without outside pressures or distractions, and scale with the size of the community as it grows. The addition of commercial editions achieves all of these goals as it allows you to generate revenue from the product and reinvest that revenue back into the product and ecosystem.
That being said, there are also some challenges to this model. In particular, when it comes to the development of new features, it is not always obvious which product edition a specific feature belongs in. This has the potential to create some tension but we try our best to make wise decisions based on the needs of the user or customer without letting emotions dictate the outcome. Often this means that the most essential features are included in the platform, and the more advanced functionality is reserved for the commercial editions. We don’t always get this right, and there have been some instances where we migrated functionality from the commercial editions back to the open source edition – but in no case have we ever removed functionality from the open source edition. Product differentiation is typically done at the user interface level where the mechanisms that allow a business user to manage a feature are either included in a particular product edition or not. However at the platform level, we try to make the APIs available to everyone. This is because platforms are not built on scarcity – they are based on a broad availability of services combined with a large installed base of users. In order for third party developers to be able to take full advantage of the DNN platform to satisfy customer requirements or create value-added products or innovations, we need to ensure all of our APIs are available to everyone. This is the only way to support our developer ecosystem and avoid fragmentation.
The other tension is based on wariness related to the business model. When we see questions such as “Will there always be a free version of DotNetNuke?” it emphasizes the fact that we have done a poor job of educating people on how the commercial open source business model actually works. I do understand that it is easy to imagine a theoretical scenario where the platform could get marginalized or neglected as a result of the needs of the company to generate revenue. And I also understand that this perception could be further fueled by general skepticism of venture capitalists and their motivations. However, the reality is that VC’s invest in opportunities that include both people and repeatable, scalable business models. In a commercial open source model, the platform is the one of most valuable assets because it provides the mass distribution and potential for mass adoption which allows the business to scale. The open platform creates the viral market “pull” and revenue is generated by converting a small percentage of the overall user base to the commercial editions. Essentially it is the successful adoption of the open source product that creates the business opportunity at the top of the sales funnel and the company focuses on creating awareness of its commercial solutions and their capabilities so that those organizations who have more advanced needs can be converted into paying customers. So inhibiting the value or usefulness of the platform, in turn, inhibits its growth and adoption which, in turn, reduces the business opportunity for the company. As you can see, it is a symbiotic balance that absolutely needs to be maintained and preserved in order be successful.
As a company, DNN Corp formalizes its commitment to the open source platform through our company values. These values serve as guiding principles to how we operate the business, both tactically and strategically; how we evaluate problems and opportunities, and ultimately make business decisions:
- We embrace ‘Open Source’ as the foundation of our ecosystem and of our business.
- We maintain a symbiotic balance between commerce and community.
- We are focused on the success of people and organizations who use our products and services
Every employee who joins DNN Corp is exposed to our company values when they are hired and are expected to rely on them for guidance in their day to day activities. A strong company value system helps cultivate and encourage a company culture which is in alignment with the philosophy of the open source ecosystem.
That being said, we recognize that our external communications have been inadequate in recent years when it comes to evangelizing our long term commitment to the DNN platform and community. We hope that by making a definitive and public statement such as this, it helps reinforce the fact that we take our role as DNN steward seriously and are focused on living up to our responsibilities to ensure the open source platform values and ideals are preserved for the long term.