Euro open source consortium lifts game

Consortium is gaining traction in the enterprise space, but needs a better profile. James Niccolai reports

The ObjectWeb consortium is giving itself a makeover this year to make its open source software more suitable for business use and to help it expand further outside Europe.

The plans include issuing product road maps, marketing itself more actively and opening local chapters overseas. The consortium also plans to become a non-profit legal entity this year, a move that will make it easier for the group to sign business contracts, says François Letellier, a member of ObjectWeb’s executive committee.

The changes aim to address what ObjectWeb sees as shortcomings in the way most open source communities operate. With open source software becoming mainstream, staff must be appointed to ensure that road maps are adhered to and to deliver software “of a level of quality that enterprises can rely upon,” the group says. “In an international and multi-cultural environment this requires more than an informal community,” it says.

The changes may also help the consortium compete better against big middleware vendors, many of which are starting to offer free and open source software of their own. IBM, for example, bought Gluecode Software last year, which provides an open source application server based on The Apache Group’s Geronimo project.

ObjectWeb is best known for its Jonas application server, which Red Hat began offering last year as an option with its server software stack. The consortium has about 100 projects altogether, mostly building infrastructure software. It was founded in 2002 by France Télécom, Bull and the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA).

The group now includes about 60 corporate members and 6,500 contributors, including staff at its member companies and volunteers. While ObjectWeb is relatively well known in Europe, it’s influence overseas is less clear, however. It is also hard to know how many people are using its software, since they don’t pay licence fees.

Henry Peyret, an analyst with Forrester Research in Europe, says very few of his customers talk about ObjectWeb. Most of those are large corporations, he notes, and ObjectWeb’s software may be more widely used among governments. Member companies such as France Télécom say they use it to help reduce licensing costs.

The moves to address the needs of business users reflects a trend in which open source efforts are becoming more commercialised, Peyret says, pointing to successful vendors like JBoss. ObjectWeb’s development model is good because its users have a say in how software is developed and what new features are added, but the group needs more visibility among analysts and journalists, he says. The changes it plans to make “are going in the right direction,” he says.

ObjectWeb has been planning its makeover for the past year, Letellier says, and will discuss the plans further at its user conference in Paris.

Among the biggest changes will be becoming a legal entity. Business dealings ObjectWeb enters into today are signed on its behalf by INRIA. Becoming a legal entity will allow it to sign its own contracts, set a budget and generally respond better to its members’ needs, Letellier says.

Details have yet to be decided. The group could remain in France or move its base to Belgium, Letellier says. “Strategic members” of the consortium, which carry the most influence over operations, will have to commit three years to the group and make significant software or financial contributions, he says.

ObjectWeb will also step up its marketing, through trade shows and press activities. It may also ask vendors that distribute its software, such as Red Hat, to add an ObjectWeb label to their packaging, somewhat like Intel’s “Intel Inside” campaign.

“There’s an urban legend in the open source world that marketing has nothing to do with open source, but the reality is that if you want to increase your visibility and adoption you have to do [public relations],” Letellier says. “Our members are asking for more visibility and more active promotion of the code base.”

The consortium will also launch more “market-driven initiatives” to promote its software. Beginning with an ESB (enterprise service bus) initiative launched last year, these involve writing documentation for software and grouping similar projects under general umbrellas. The group will launch an RFID initiative this year, with others to follow.

“We have more than 100 projects and it can be very difficult to find your way,” Letellier says. “The initiatives also help attract contributors.”

ObjectWeb will add international chapters, starting possibly in China, where it already has partnerships with the Guangzhou Middleware Research Centre and the software group, Orientware.

“We’ll have people familiar with how business works locally, with local governments, with local language skills,” Letellier says. “We know technology development is done globally, but business happens locally.”

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