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Warning.

This discussion took place during the Stack Exchange 1.0 days, when FogCreek sold Stack Exchange licenses for a fee.

It is worth noting that Stack Exchange licenses are still being sold for intranet use.

Important Caveattm: this is something we are merely discussing that may happen more than one year from now, if it happens at all. Bearing that IMPORTANT CAVEAT in mind, please read on.

Joel is convinced that open-sourcing Stack Overflow, in any way, shape, or form, will destroy the business model of StackExchange (pushing prices down to hosting commodity levels) and possibly the Stack Overflow family of sites as well (fragmentation & dissipation of audience via army of clone sites).

  1. Does open sourcing Stack Overflow even make sense at all? What do we (stackoverflow.com llc) get out of it? What does the community get out of it? Is it "win-win"? Or does someone lose?

  2. Are there "hybrid" models of open sourcing that could work? Rather than treating this as an "all or nothing" scenario, is there a way to open source parts of what we're doing, or restrict licensing so that we don't compete with ourselves in the hosted StackExchange part of the business?

  3. Aren't there other companies pursuing open source and hosting businesses at the same time? Such as Six Apart and Movable Type? I'm not sure how applicable this is to hosting business models, but certainly Slashdot and Reddit have gone open source. DotNetNuke also runs a similar business model, apparently.

  4. Won't we be competing with open source versions of ourselves anyway in the long term? There are certainly already open source Stack Overflow clones, and lots of open source FogBugz competition and clones. Over time, won't the competitive pressure increase from the continual improvement of open source copies of what we do? Would it make sense to do it ourselves so we control it?

  5. Could there be "enterprisey" closed source and "public" open source parts of the business? I've always said that StackExchange is going to have to fork because their private small, medium, and large business audience will want very different things than the public internet audience we serve. Wouldn't this be one way to segment the "free as in whatever the heck it is we're calling free these days" open-source dev work from the value-add closed source product?

Thoughts? Feelings? ... ponies?

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Sort of reminds me of KnowledgeTree (knowledgetree.com), which they open sourced the code but kept all the enterprise-y stuff under closed sourced and only available in their commercial editions. Having used their OSS version for close to 3 years and seeing them thriving, probably it's worth looking to see how they had packaged their deals. –  Seh Hui Leong Jul 7 '09 at 10:57
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Just keep in mind that cloning SO is so easy. Probably a month of work. As we all know, cloning is much easier than building the thing in the first place. –  LeakyCode Jul 7 '09 at 11:38
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i'd say 6-8 weeks... –  geocoin Jul 7 '09 at 14:45
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@Merdad: There is a clone of the engine underway, as I recall. I believe they've been working on it for over a month (at least) and they are still quite always behind. Fact is, Jeff and Joel have set a standard with these sites. –  Frank V Jul 7 '09 at 18:13
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I don't have any thoughts or feelings to add to this, but here is a pony (BONUS: it is being ridden by a dog!): simplymarvelous.files.wordpress.com/2007/07/… –  Hilarious Comedy Pesto Jul 8 '09 at 12:10
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Like you mentioned in a blog post, tons developers on this site could clone it in a weekend if they wanted. Like you mentioned the level of polish SO has would be hard to achieve in a weekend, but making it open source will lead to blatant copies and bad implementations that would deface the reputation for excellence SO has. Maybe what you could do to give back to the community is have a weekly/monthly blog post that details techniques you use and goes over code. Blog posts like this would in a nerdy way be really exciting. I know I would be looking foreward to it each week. –  teh_noob Jul 11 '09 at 23:51
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@teh_noob: "Maybe what you could do to give back to the community..." IMO, StackOverflow (and friends) is already a valuable gift to the community. –  P Daddy Sep 4 '09 at 1:19

64 Answers 64

  1. Does open sourcing Stack Overflow even make sense at all?

    Yes, it makes sense. You get a horde of extremely competent and enthusiastic users as potential contributors to the SO code base. These users (me included) will contribute with new functionality, better unit tests, new designs, etc.

  2. Are there "hybrid" models of open sourcing that could work?

    It depends. Open sourcing the SO code base, but licensing such that it can't be hosted by anyone but you contradicts the FOSS spirit, but I guess it's possible. I can't think of a suitable existing license or a project sporting such a license at the moment.

  3. Aren't there other companies pursuing open source and hosting businesses at the same time?

    Indeed. WordPress.org is in direct competition with WordPress.com, TypePad is in competition with MovableType, etc. Both Automattic and SixApart seems to be doing just fine. Especially in the case of Automattic, I'd say they're doing a hell of a lot better after open sourcing WordPress than they did before.

  4. Won't we be competing with open source versions of ourselves anyway in the long term?

    Yep. I think the NRKbeta Doctrine applies just as much to source code and services as it does to copyrighted content. The only way to control your content is to be the best provider of it. If SO doesn't provide the community with the source code for SO-like services, someone else sooner or later will. Can and will SO risk losing the head-start to another service provider?

  5. Could there be "enterprisey" closed source and "public" open source parts of the business?

    Absolutely. See my answer to point 3. There's lots of other examples of service providers doing the same, but I think those examples weigh heavy enough (for now, at least).

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Good answer(s). I'd suggest maybe editing your post -- put each of the 5 questions directly above your replies, as not many people will scroll up & down to correlate your replies with the questions. –  Dan Jul 7 '09 at 12:48
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"If SO doesn't provide the community with the source code for SO-like services, someone else sooner or later will." - I think this comment is the key point to evaluate. If it's true, and I believe it is, then there is a significant reason to consider open-sourcing SO. –  Feckmore Jul 7 '09 at 14:57
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“Especially in the case of Automattic, I'd say they're doing a hell of a lot better after open sourcing WordPress than they did before.” Actually, Wordpress was open-source long before Automattic exaisted. –  Matthew Bischoff Jul 7 '09 at 15:10
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Reddit opensourced its code, and that doesn't mean thousand of reddit-alike websites drive users away. And to stifle competition there's a nice license option : Affero GPL. –  wazoox Jul 10 '09 at 10:08

My first reaction was ... " No, no, no, hell f**ing NO !! " ..... , but then the point number 4 gave me real long pause.... and I haven't recovered from it yet ;)

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Aside from releasing source the alternative would be to license SO. I would push for a purchase in my org.

It is a great way to organically build a knowledge base over time, and I think that piece is missing in a lot of places - especially stovepipe orgs. Given the competitive nature of the badge system it would encourage average employees to contribute their knowledge for recognition - which would help break down information barriers. It would also allow you to identify who in the organization knows about what, and which people are holding the place together.

As a programmer if I could go to a LAN instance of SO about... say accounting, ask an accounting question, and get answers from people in 4 divisions, that would be awesome.

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Open sourcing everything probably will screw up your business, but opensourcing parts here and there is a common thing - see http://github.com/facebook for example.

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Could there be "enterprisey" closed source and "public" open source parts of the business? I've always said that StackExchange is going to have to fork because their private small, medium, and large business audience will want very different things than the public internet audience we serve. Wouldn't this be one way to segment the "free as in whatever the heck it is we're calling free these days" open-source dev work from the value-add closed source product?

Personally, I think open-sourcing part of the tool amd not all of it is a Bad Thing™. It's why I won't even take a second look at a lot of "Open Core" toolsets (like Zenoss) - either the whole operation should be open and available, or none.

I've wanted to be able to use the SO engine for a knowledge-base system for a while - with the caveat being that any authenticated user can post or view a question, but only "special" users can answer (in the context of providing a corporate KB for software tools, for example).

I'd be willing to use SE, but honestly the hosted costs are just way too high. For the amount we'd spend in a year, I can have a couple developers build a knock-off that works well enough for our purposes.

This is even more true in the context of having a Q&A site for FLOSSS projects on which I am involved at some level.

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  1. Currently, it wouldn't make any sense. Open source only make business sense when there is a community of users or businesses that find supporting a core software module/product useful for their business, but not part of their core business and thus to risky to devote resources to. By everyone contributing to the open code base, the risk is dispersed.

    • The classic example of this is the HTTP server. Every company needs one, but it rarely falls within a company's core business model.

    • In my opinion, SO as an application is distinct specialized enough that it is not a commodity, and therefore doesn't fall into the above category of software.

  2. Yes, if this is a core "engine" that ranks questions / answers / users, you could choose to open source that. For example, you could open source the "badges" component.

  3. Yes there are companies based on open source. You should evaluate how successful they have been and if their success matches up with your goals. Note that two of the companies you listed were acquired.

  4. Seems like you already have the answer to this question. Yes, I agree - you will be competing against open source clones, particularly in markets you may not have entered yet (Asia, Eastern Europe)

  5. See answer to #2 - if you want to provide an open source version of "Stack Engine" you could do so - but the only benefit would likely be goodwill of the community. As such, should not have the full features of the core site.

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You probably already know it but there is a Spanish social news site called Meneame ([meneame.net]) which platform was open-sourced from the beginning and they are still getting about 80k daily unique visitors (Google trends said: http://trends.google.com/websites?q=meneame.net%2C+stackoverflow.com&geo=all&date=all&sort=0 )

It's true that they didn't built it thinking about business models but they are making some money with it.

And of course they got a lot of clones, but they are the reference and the community was already built that's what makes Meneame to have an added value.

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Or if you can let users create their own stack site on your system. Like Google Groups, but now it's Jeff Stacks.

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They are already allowing this: stackexchange.com –  random Oct 26 '09 at 8:54

If you're not going to open source it, then you might create some lower priced tiers for freelancer/small business.

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The reason not to open source would be because you would gain less revenue. (which isn't the same as losing revenue: hardly anyone who downloads Photoshop would pay for it if they couldn't download it, so it's not revenue lost)

Would you gain less? StackExchange might gain less revenue, but StackOverflow wouldn't.

The on the other side, the only reason I can see to open-source it is to get it more widely used than a service like StackExchange can make it, or to head off competitors that are doing similar.

In other words, the reason is because it would be free-like-beer. The fact that it would be free-like-speech wouldn't give many benefits at all: The product works well so there's not a huge amount of development work you need to do that can't be done in-house. And any work done externally would have to be vetted in-house anyway, so you'll need to pay that guy.

If you did decide you wanted to go the Open Source route, follow the MySQL or RedHat path: it's all open source, but support is provided at a cost. That means you will sell it to the enterprise crowd who need solid support contracts before they can begin to look at a product. You can sell it (via StackExchange) to the crowd who have no idea (and don't want any idea) how to set it up for themselves.

Sure, there will be other people who will compete with StackExchange using your product. But that's going to happen anyway, just using some other open-source initialtive that works the same way.

(Note that this yet-to-be-discovered competitor will be writing it in PHP or Ruby or Python -- all languages that have huge Open Source followings. ASP.Net just isn't that big for open source because it's based on closed-source libraries and compilers. This means that you'd be losing the competition for people to help you write it, so again the argument is all about free-like-beer.)

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What about instead of open sourcing it, making it free to create a StackExchange site? You could keep all the advertising revenue. There's loads of great ideas out there, and I would hazard a guess that many of us would just like a SE site relating to our topic of interest, and aren't interested in trying to monetise it. For example, books.stackexchange.com or movies.stackexchange.com could easily become more successful than stackoverflow.

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Make your money by offering hosting and customization. If you get some big customers, they are going to want customized changes that go beyond CSS. They will expect AD integration. They will want attachments.

If you add attachments, you have basically the same feature set as and can compete with Sharepoint, Confluence, Clearspace, etc.

At the same time, release it as open source. @Brian M. Hunt's reason #7 is probably the most important: "Open sourcing the project will destroy the motivation for an open source equivalent to arise in competition to your own project."

Leave out some key features (like AD integration, file attachments). Create a few plugins for essential features that aren't included with the open source product, and make them available for sale.

Let the community contribute features. Make a dead-simple plugin framework (following Wordpress's model) so the community has a low barrier to entry.

And, if it is open source, then (low- or no-budget) communities (such as students, user groups, etc.) that need a certain feature will be able to add it themselves.

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Give me a dead-simple plugin framework and I'll give you Open-Source AD integration and attachments. –  RickMeasham Oct 4 '09 at 4:53

I can see a good combination of two approaches:

Dual-licensing with AGPL and a proprietary license: It's the model Qt has taken and it seems to have worked quite well for them. Few competitors would give back code, so you get paid by them while letting the community have its share;

Hosting with paid advanced features: Wordpress.com charges for the simplest things (like editing CSS), even those that are available on the open-source version. You could offer similar free hosting, with your own ads, while charging for:

  • customizing CSS
  • having one's own domain
  • advanced moderation features
  • hosting one's own ads (maybe a rev-share model?)
  • database dumps
  • extra storage space
  • speed (privileged hosting)
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I have one word for you: data

The actual codebase for stack overflow is not that important, what has value is the questions. So I reccomend that you wait until stack overflow has so many questions any clone would be useless due to lack of questions. By that point even moving all the questions over would be useless, because people will go and look on stackoverflow.com and not some random clone.

Due to the reasons mentioned above your business model is not at risk relying you don't mistreat your community.

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Haven't read all 50+ answers, but here are my opinions:

  1. Open-source the concept only. There are still Java, Ruby, etc. developers out there, who don't C#

  2. Not much, as you would decline almost everything.

  3. Don't know.

  4. No, just keep the quality bar high and use modern scientific methods to optimize the community's behavior.

  5. If you want to sell the engine, no problem there.

Btw, how do you imagine a business version of SO? A corporate knowledge base or something?

If I were you, and I was low on money, I would ask for donations, and perhaps ask god to help me out some way. Or any minor gods out there.

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I humbly suggest that the value of making this project open source may come from the following scenarios:

  1. The perception that there will be code review by the public will encourage higher quality code production (this may not be the case, but it is a motivator). This is an often overlooked and highly valuable consideration in many closed-source development scenarios.

  2. Actual review by the public has the potential to reveal security issues, and more importantly the turnaround from the community for a fix is typically overnight.

  3. Free porting to other platforms increases the size of the potential marketplace for support contracts.

  4. Open sourcing the project allays concerns about lock-in, or that the product not remain available into the future (who knows, a law in Utah may someday prohibit the StackExchange SAAS model...).

  5. Peddling (slightly difficult) open source software creates revenue models for support.

  6. Open sourcing the project will allow others to turn it into something newer and better, and in particular further the ability to integrate with other software projects.

  7. Open sourcing the project will destroy the motivation for an open source equivalent to arise in competition to your own project.

Measuring these against your project is a non-trivial problem! Best of luck.

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I'd argue that 1, 2 and 3 won't be as good as you think: it's written in ASP.NET or some similar MS language. The community of open-source developers is small, so you're more likely to have the cracker community finding exploits than the developer community doing code review. Same problem for porting: you can easily port open languages, but porting something written in ASP.NET will be horrendously difficult that the port is really just a competitor Open Source product written in Perl/PHP/Python/Ruby. #7 is likely if it's closed source, but as per above, just as likely if it's open source. –  RickMeasham Oct 4 '09 at 4:58
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@Warren: Exactly the point. There are loads of duplicate oss projects out there. If Stack Exchange was open source, that would not be the case. –  Brian M. Hunt Oct 27 '09 at 2:43

From a purely selfish standpoint, I would love to see the source, as it is clear that the site has been done "correctly" in so many different ways, and I think it would make me a better developer.

If you did open-source it, you would have to license it in a way that protects you from direct competition, as I honestly think you guys should be the only ones in this space. Having two or more StackOverflows on the internet would only dilute the model.

I also think you should be very choosy about who gets write access to the code repository. These people would have to be totally dedicated to the purity of the Stack Overflow concept, and the only way to be sure of that is to retain complete control.

Undoubtedly you would face competitive pressures from clones who use your code. But your secret sauce is not the code itself, it's the social model you have constructed that is embodied by the code, and that has already been open-sourced.

I wish I had a crystal ball and could tell you what the best business model is. Nowadays its seems that the more you give away, the more exposure you get and (potentially) the more revenue you can capture. But I think you already have your audience. From a business standpoint, I don't see how open-sourcing StackOverflow will help you.

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Open-sourcing is good. Open-sourcing Stack Overflow is a bad idea. It's so close to a finished product already. One of the major reason to open source a project like this (that I can see) would be to make it work on more platforms and that works directly against your business model, which is to monopolize on the Stack Overflow engine.

One thing I see lacking from your business model is the freebie choice. 10 clicks, no cost and you've got your own mini-Stack Overflow. Sounds bad for business? On the contrary, because this mini-Stack Overflow will be limited enough so that only the people who would never consider paying any big amount for the Stack Overflow engine will keep on using it. The most recent site using this business model that I can think of is Google App Engine (You may say that it is open source, but that's just the framework; not the stuff behind that makes it all tick. Not to mention the hardware requirement it has.)

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I think you're asking the wrong question. You should be asking Can our business model survive being copied? Because if you're successful, you will be copied, and it won't make a difference if they're running your engine, or one they made themselves.

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It should be mentioned that open source and free software are slightly different concepts, but I'll use them here interchangably anyway, with the meaning of free software.

1) There are many ways in which you can consider whether open sourcing makes sense. Gains/losses are one significant angle. There is also a philosophical one.

In the philosophical sense, freeing the code is itself a goal - the rationale being the same that science tires to embrace: advancing the body of human knowledge, or in this case the codebase of humanity. Things to consider here is not what gains will be gotten from making the software free, but rather what will losses will be made (if any), and whether they can be afforded. In this view, closed source is a bit like hiding a cure for common cold and selling it for rich people - somewhat shady business, but it happens.

From the utilitarian gains/losses angle, you need to consider the affected parties, as you already stated in the question. What do you gain/lose? What does the community as a whole gain/lose? What do other individuals gain/lose?

Gains:

  • You gain improvements to the code by the community - not just new stuff being coded, but also multitude of eyeballs checking the code for errors. Usually, this is an overstated advantage, but considering your audience has a lot of skilled coders, it might be very significant.
  • Also if you release with AGPL, you may even gain improvements from competing business, as they'd have to release their modifications. Whether this is significant, it's hard to tell.
  • Also from utilitarian view, you gain karma points - a lot of people seem to like open source, and freeing you code would make a great impression to the open source community.
  • The community gains the possibility to improve on your code, whether directly through submissions to your code, or by forking to develop for other purposes.
  • The community gains other problem-solving sites with quality code - as people, inspiried by the awesome code of SO, start setting them up for all kinds of topics.
  • This also means an important gain: Other individuals gain the possibility to set up their own sites - even for non-profit or private scenarios. Not everyone has money for StackExchange. Then again, there already are open source alternatives.

Losses:

  • You may lose some business of StackExchange, but I don't feel confident in guessing whether this will happen and how much you lose. In any case, it's doubtful that you gain business.
  • The community may lose coherency and quality of problem-solving sites. If multiple copies spring up, it might dilute the problem-solving field and reduce quality as the other sites probably wouldn't be as well maintained. I don't expect the community for programming questions to disperse from here, but for other topics this may be a problem.
  • The community may lose your contribution - if there's no StackExchange business model, and everyone and their friends are hosting problem-solving sites, are you anymore interested in improving this system rather than just letting the community deal with it?
  • Other individuals can't really lose anything, since they're only given stuff.

4) You will indeed inevitably be competing with open-source options. If you go open source, you'll probably be controlling the progress. You can delay this until the open source alternatives are starting to gaining community and popularity - but if you delay too much, you'll need to work a lot to get to the top, since everyone will be focused on the alternative that was open source from the beginning.

The relevant question here is, does it matter whether you are in control or not? You'll always have SO code for your sites, regardless. The risk for you is that an open source alternative becomes a lot better, and people start migrating there, so you have to work to keep up with the competition. You could avoid the work by going open and just controlling the progress yourselves. Then again, I don't expect OS alternatives to get attractive enough for migration in a long time, but who knows.

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Slightly off topic though already sort of mentioned. What about a free closed source version of Stack Overflow for download?

I'm thinking along the lines of things similar to Microsoft's 'Express' editions of Visual Studio where the product works but has certain limitations built in.

You could for example create a free to download but closed source 'Stack Overflow Express'. It could be limited by for example, only working with SQL Server express (total database size 2GB Max), no support for running ads, limited number of page views a day, limted number of total users, limited styling support, no plugins, etc etc.

This would make a great free product for interanet or extranet use within small companies, organisations or groups and not impact on the business of getting the big users to buy the real thing.

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There are a lot of interesting posts in this thread. I want to call out a few of the different arguments:

  • If you open source it, you get free labor and at least you get to manage commits and vet new patches and features yourself.

This is false. First of all, most of the patches you get will need to be rejected. In the end, you likely either spend as much time reviewing patches as it would take to implement the feature, or you're just not getting the patches. Secondly, open sourcing doesn't guarantee that you get to be the maintainers of the project. It won't stop people from also forking it to do what they want. For a product like this, where the maintainer has a very high standard for polish and integration (a good thing) and the audience includes many competent, connected developers, the likelihood of a serious fork is very high. So the idea that going open source somehow lets you pre-empt the clones is just wrong.

  • Company X seems to do pretty well with open source

Irrelevant. It's a different business in a different situation. Even if the situation seems similar, there will be little differences that can have a big impact. This applies to WordPress and Reddit as well. And many of these companies are still in the stage where they're burning through VC money, so appearances can be deceiving.

  • The on-site version is too expensive.

This is very much true. For that kind of money, I could take one of the (bad) clones as a starting point and tell a developer to spend a couple months turning it into something usable. It'll take a bit and won't be quite as nice, but pretty soon we'll have something that our users like almost as much, is tailored to fit our company, integrates with our existing systems, and is much cheaper to operate. If after a year I'm still not happy, we can work on it more and I'm still not out anything vs using SE. If I had that kind of money to burn and needed something right away, I might buy SE, but I probably can also have another developer hack a replacement at the same time and so you wouldn't keep the business for long.

Then again, I'm a programmer and not a business manager, so perhaps this would never even occur them. Instead, all they'll see is a big price tag on something that's basically a toy for their internal users. Either way: it's too much. Basically the problem is that it assumes the reason you'd want the onsite version is to go bigger, when it's more likely customers will want it because they're smaller; they only want to use it for internal staff and don't want it's contents public.

You also need to look at it from a forum site standpoint. Right now there are thousands of little sites running vBulletin or phpBB. What do those users pay? How can you capture some of that money? Currently you are completely priced out of this. The only way to get into that market at all is to have some form of installable package. Will it hurt you if a bunch of other little sites start using the same code base as stackoverflow? Probably not, especially if they're paying for the privilege. Will releasing the code as open source allow you sell to more of these users or fewer? Depending on how you do it, it could be many many more, or it could completely cut off any sales of the for-pay edition at all.

  • Competition from other other providers will drive the price down to your costs or below.

Perhaps. I think probably not quite that far: as the originators of the code base, you will always be able to command a premium over the competition. If you go this route, what you would need to do is make sure you're in the business of selling hosting to the richest customers (the banana republicans) rather than poorest. Let others worry about making money from the low end. Yes, you're giving up a lot of revenue to them, but most of that doesn't count because it's revenue from customers that could not have afforded your offering anyway. All you get to think about is the portion that you lose due to pricing pressure from the competition. This will be significant at first, but the story isn't over yet.

What this does for you long-term is allow you to use the competition to grow your market. Some of the smaller customers that start out going through a competitor and could never have afforded to even get started under your current plan will now grow enough to need your services. Think of it like giving CoPilot away for free on the weekends. Some of those weekend users will eventually want it during the week. And some other big users might hear of it because they know someone who knows someone who uses it for free. Over the long haul, the economics say this should be the better option for the business. A bigger market usually means more revenue - eventually.

  • You can split the code base into distinct parts and open source just some of the site

Separating the engine from the interface is a good idea anyway, and probably required for StackExchange to be a success. Additionally, setting up the engine to use a provider or plugin model for certain parts would be a very good idea. One big is the authentication mechanism. Another is treating your main input editor as a pluggable component (so users can swap out your markdown for freetextbox, for example). Others include adding badges and moderator tools as plugins. I could come up with more like this. Again, this makes sense to do anyway, and will make managing the StackExchange product easier. It would also allow you to hold some key code in reserve in a meaningful way if you ever do go open source.

What I really like about it is that it gives you the option to sell the components. You could forget StackExchange (at least as the main money-maker - I really doubt it will take off anyway because you can't just install a community on a server), and sell your markdown editor implementation as a component that can plug into any web site.

Finally, my own new point:

  • Speed is a feature

You keep saying this, and we know it is very much true. You have the ability to show potential customers the graphs published by google and bing of how clicks and attention drop off as a page takes longer to load, look them in the eye, and guarantee your pages will load in the fastest block. Even if you open source the code, your competition would have a hard time doing that, because they don't have your intimate knowledge of how it works and what it takes to keep it fast. You can do a better job monitoring and profiling your customers performance, and tuning the servers than anyone else could ever hope to. And this is another big reason the banana republicans with money to burn would go to you for hosting vs cheaper competition, even after you open source the product.

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"For a product like this, where the maintainer has a very high standard for polish and integration (a good thing) and the audience includes many competent, connected developers, the likelihood of a serious fork is very high." on the contrary, it looks very low to me –  UncleZeiv Jul 16 '09 at 13:46
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What - you don't think that when enough interested developers have good patches declined, they won't be motived to take the code and add the patches anyway? –  Joel Coehoorn Jul 16 '09 at 14:00

Digium has managed to open source their asterisk software while maintaining an Enterprise version. Redhat (RHEL vs Fedora || CentOS) and Novell (SLED vs OpenSUSE) have done the same too ...

I would like to see an open source version of StackExchange - I would love to start a site for car enthusiasts - oilchange.org or something similar - but I can't really justify investing the money for the StackExchange service.

Really, it depends on the Open Source License you choose, you write your own license that prevents people using the software, or any derivative of it, in a manner that competes with you, but allows them to use it freely for their own purposes - ie: a company can't start their own hosted StackExchange service, but they can create a site for hobby-electronics or something ...

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Open Sourcing SO is a horrible, horrible idea. Please do not do it.

As someone who plans to launch half a dozen SO sites as soon as I can, I want to pay you money. Please let me do that.

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In the name of all that is holy: why wouldn't you be able to pay these guys money if it was open source???? –  Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Sep 28 '10 at 8:19

Why not a hybrid model? Open Source for people that won't pay anyway, like non-commercial entities, open source projects, etc, and only make enterprises pay with a clause in the open source licence that explicitly disallows commercial use.

You will get the best advantages from both worlds.

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a license that explicitly disallows commercial use is NOT an open source license. access to source code is only part of the FOSS philosophy. The major part is the freedom to do whatever you want with the code, without restriction (typically the only restriction that FOSS types accept is that you can't redistribute it with more restrictions than were in the original license - e.g. GPL copyleft style licenses - and even that's not universally accepted - e.g. BSD style licenses) –  cas Jul 13 '09 at 9:33
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yes, you're right. pedantic concern over terminology is so silly. i really want to believe that when i get my electricity bill, when they say "payment is due by DATE", they're actually promising to give me that money by that date. that's my definition, and i'm sticking to it. –  cas Jul 13 '09 at 22:36

semi-Open Source: Code available, but not licensed for "Resale"

So, individuals and organizations can use it, contribute patches and features, but ISPs and Web Hosting companies can't undercut StackExchange.

This can be accomplished by Dual Licensing... free for personal/intranet use, royalties required for reselling or providing StackExchange-like services.

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One alternative to providing an open-source version would be to provide a Free version on StackExchange, similar to the way that UserVoice does it. The reason that people would want an open-source version would be to run it for their site, for free. If you provide that functionality for them, there would be much less need for it (other than making changes to the code/functionality).

One reason that it WOULD benefit the community would be to show off the quality of the code. This is a programmer's haven. I'm sure that a lot of people here would LOVE to see the code, just to use it as an example of a great codebase. Perhaps a license like the Microsoft .NET source code license would apply (look but don't touch).

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My perspective is that you only gain goodwill.

You do not gain in perceivable quality, you do not gain in security, you do not gain in features.

You lose time in reviewing submitted patches, you lose corporate marketshare from forks, and you lose potential community members due to fragmentation of the market.

However, I would suggest - tentatively - that you may want to partner with a Big Iron-y company to see what their needs are for this kind of software. Perhaps that company would get a special rate, in exchange for being a "Friends and Family" contributor to SE features/licensing model.

I do not believe that offering something for nothing(open source) is a viable business model. I do not see how it fits into a functional and viable theory of real-world economic behavior.

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There are three revenue sources for software:

  1. Sell the software
  2. Sell consulting/maintenance around the software
  3. Host the software

In your case you will also have ad revenue from your three web properties that use the codebase.

Open sourcing the software definitely eliminates #1 above and may also eliminate #3 (as Joel mentioned in Podcast #60). I could certainly see FogCreek being able to make a ton of money using the #2 approach - sell the server, installation, configuration, and training for $50,000 plus an annual maintenance fee. Enterprises want the software on their own network - a reason I think the StackExchange idea will not be as successful as it could be.

There will be many advantages of open sourcing the software from a business sense: getting the FogCreek brand out (for Joel), developer good will (you buy products from companies you like), and contributions from open source developers.

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Don't fix something that works.

You can always open-source it later if it makes sense, the opposite is impossible.

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