The Comfort of Normal Business

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Most of what’s written on open source has to do with some big controversy, or the Great Game of large companies colliding in court or the marketplace.

This is not one of those stories. Instead, it’s about the comforting feeling of normal business being done. It’s about an open source “portal” software company called Liferay Inc.

A portal is a general purpose Web site that could be anything. It could be Internet, could be Intranet. It could be a store, or it could be a community, as with Drupal or WordPress. It could be a lot of things, which is why the term Liferay gives to its software is obsolete. But do you have another one?

Liferay has grown organically over a decade. It’s of the first generation of companies dubbed “open core,” which means its employees, headed by chief developer Brian Chan, write all the code (Brian approves each change personally) while CEO Bryan Cheung (no relation – Chan is Chinese-American, Cheung Korean-American) wears a suit, offering the business vision and strategy.

At its West Coast Developer Symposium, where I was privileged to speak last week, the big announcement was Liferay Marketplace, part of the enterprise edition of the software, Version 6.1, will be shipping around Christmas. It’s going to be a way for people to make, and sell, apps that work within Liferay.

You could compare it with Apple’s AppStore, and chief marketing officer Paul Hinz (who joined the team last year after Oracle blew up Sun’s open source cred) wishes you would. Only the initial release won’t support sandboxing or in-app purchases, and the royalty Liferay is taking on sales is just 20%.

If you wish for a “great game” angle, you might call the new effort Hinz’ revenge. He’s determined to prove that the path Sun was on – the full open source monty – was the path they should have stayed with. The business had always been using software to sell servers, and lower-cost open source software would have sold plenty of servers, he told me. But that’s water under the bridge.

Now Hinz is committed to this quirky Orange County start-up and its band of (mostly) young, Asian-American developers from the LA suburbs who wanted to do their thing without leaving for “the Valley,” as so many companies (a-a-a-Appcelerator … excuse me) have done, lured by the bright lights and the big dollars.

“If you have an ecosystem, a resistant network of inter-connected bodies helping each other, that’s better than a monolithic entity,” Cheung said when he took the stage before a few hundred people, “When one company owns everything, a lot of value gets destroyed,” he added.

Which is how Hinz came into the picture. It was Oracle’s decision to cut out Liferay support, which had been the company’s lifeline to the enterprise market, that drew him in.

Over the course of two days, major Liferay developers showed their stuff and direction, some of them appearing as slick as Forrester analysts, others appearing like, well, software geeks. There’s a disarming honesty to everyone on the Liferay team. If they’re not certain of something, they say so; if something is delayed or went wrong, they admit it. It’s the kind of attitude that draws honest businesspeople to them. It’s their heart, the idea that “we’re doing this for you,” something Chan touched on in his own talk at the conference’s end.

Of course, you would never see this heart if you didn’t see Liferay. If you didn’t meet the people, share a meal with them, walk around in their shoes a while, and enjoy the comforting feeling of normal business being done.

No, it’s not a big story, and Liferay is not a huge company, with “only” 250 people and small development offices scattered around the world. The company hopes Marketplace will help it continue its normal growth path and, since the company is funded through internal operations, they’re not at all interested in venture capitalists or the strains of going public.

If there is a story, it’s that simple, sane normality. Open source is a business just like any other business. Under the surface of tension and drama, there are honest people just doing business in a normal way.

That’s comforting to know.

Pictures of the conference available at

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One Response to “The Comfort of Normal Business”

  1. Bravo Dana!

    Another good shot at explaining how the business paradigm is changing!

    September 28, 2011 at 8:21 pm Reply

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