"In short, open source is here to stay. It's already had major impact, but there's more to come. Keep your eyes open, and prepare for more positive surprises!"
Tim O'Reilly, CEO, O'Reilly Media
On June 8th, 2005, we officially launched the ePresence Interactive Media Open Source Consortium, at the Knowledge Media Design Institute (KMDI), University of Toronto (UofT). We had been researching and developing ePresence, our webcasting, webconferencing, and archiving software project for about five years. Throughout the early phase of the project we used the system to produce live webcasts of KMDI's annual lecture series. Eventually word spread about our webcasting system and other universities, such as Memorial University in Newfoundland, became interested. It was obvious that the time to share our project with the world had come, but what wasn't obvious to us at the time was how we were going to do that.
Why Dual License?
We have always maintained that universities should support open source licensing and knew this was the option we were going to pursue. However, weren't sure which of the many open source licenses available would best suit the project. Because we planned to launch the open source consortium from within the university, we also needed to develop a revenue model. We were asking ourselves the same question everyone must ask when they arrive at this juncture, "how do we make money when we're giving away our software"?
Eventually we decided to split the system into two software products, ePresence Media and ePresence Live!, and distribute each product under its own license. ePresence Media represents the core of the ePresence system and allows users to record web seminars, presentations or lectures and publish them to the web. ePresence Live!, when used with ePresence Media, allows users to stream content live over the internet.
The rationale behind this dual license strategy was two-fold. It would allow us to release ePresence Media under a BSD license to provide for free availability and use. At the same time, we would release ePresence Live! under a University of Toronto community source license and offer it as one of the benefits of joining the ePresence consortium. By wrapping the live streaming components in a membership package with support and various other benefits, we believed we had created a product that we could market and sell.
It is important to note that under the UofT community license, the source code for ePresence Live! is available to purchasers of membership packages. Our goal was to create an incentive for users to purchase a membership, not to keep the source code closed.
Some might say we were being cautious, others might say we were trying to have our cake and eat it too. Either way, we had to prove to the university and ourselves that we had a model that was capable of generating revenue.
At first, the dual licensing strategy seemed to work. But as ePresence grew in popularity, problems with the strategy began to emerge. First, it wasn't the easiest arrangement to explain to potential customers. Part of the problem was the membership agreement was too long. Another problem was that it included a clause intended to encourage entrepreneurship and redistribution of the software. However, this clause only confused the issue of distribution. Most of our early inquiries were from academic institutions who simply wanted to set up webcast production stations in a couple of locations on their respective campuses, not redistribute the software in a way intended to generate revenue.
However, the real problem of maintaining this strategy emerged from the development side. After a year or so under the dual strategy we soon realized the constraints of developing, testing, and packaging two separate but related software packages. Each time we released a version of the software, we had to go through the steps twice. We were also beginning to utilize other open source applications for ePresence development and managing licensing compatibility was becoming time consuming. But the most interesting and unanticipated problem that emerged from our decision to employ a dual license strategy was one that involved usability.
It wasn't until we began to accumulate more ePresence users that we began to truly understand the learning complexities involved in using the system. We quickly realized that we had to make the system easier to use and with each subsequent release complexity problems were addressed and resolved.
But it wasn't until we understood the learning complexities of ePresence that we began to realize that our decision to implement the dual licensing business strategy had inadvertently introduced a usability problem into the system. The dual license strategy created an obstacle for users simply because it required users to run several interfaces at the same time. If an ePresence user wanted to stream an event live and capture that content for archive publishing later, that user would have to open an application for each of the streaming formats, plus one for the archive capturing. We needed to take these interfaces and simplify them into one, easy to use interface.
Clearly, the only way for us to do this was to put the system back together and release it as a complete set of webcasting and archiving tools. It also helped that by the time we were ready to rethink our business strategy, processing power had emerged to the point where we could run all of the ePresence applications on one machine.
It was almost as if we had arrived back at square one: we had to decide under which of the two licenses, the BSD or the UofT community license, we were going to release the software. Actually, it wasn't much of a decision at all; we knew if we were going to be viewed as a legitimate open source project then we were going to have to continue with the BSD license. By this time we had added hardware and hosting services to our list of services and products and were feeling more confident in the system and our ability to generate revenue.
On August 2nd, 2007 we released ePresence version 4.0 under the BSD license. Accompanying this release was the revised revenue model that offers five support packages, hardware, hosting and our new community media portal, ePresenceTV. Not only does ePresence offer a set of tools and services that compare to similar propriety products, ePresence is the world's first open source webcasting, webconferencing and archiving software system. Although it has been only a couple of months since we officially released the software and launched the new support subscription offerings, the feedback thus far has been very positive. We have noticed that bloggers are taking note of ePresence; we have also increased traffic to our website and seen a great improvement in our SourceForge ranking.
In June 2007, at our Annual General Meeting for ePresence consortium members, we distributed an informal survey asking members for their feedback and comments. All of the respondents agreed that releasing the entire system under the BSD license was a good idea and that having the system completely open would be a benefit to adopters. Members also indicated their willingness to remain members of the consortium, and to this date all members who had joined the consortium under the original agreement have renewed their memberships.
By modifying our business strategy and releasing ePresence under a single open source license, we have simplified our sales process by removing the focus from having to explain the complex dual license strategy to putting it where it belongs, on the software's robust functionality, and the products and services available.
Tim O'Reilly warns that there are more open source projects to come and to: "Keep your eyes open, and prepare for more positive surprises!" We think ePresence is one such project, and while it's too soon to declare our venture a success, we are very pleased with the early results, and would have to consider ourselves among the positively surprised.
We would like to acknowledge the Network for Effective Collaboration Technologies through Advanced Research (NECTAR) Network Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council (NSERC) of Canada, for funding, in part, ePresence research.