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The brand and economic advantages of the Docker / Moby split

A few weeks ago at DockerCon in Austin, Solomon Hykes introduced the Moby Project, “a new open source project to advance the container movement.” This announcement essentially split Docker (the company and product) from Moby (the open source project formerly also known as Docker). The communication challenges around how the project was announced have been well documented elsewhere as have the good community and technical reasons behind the Docker / Moby split.

But reading through most of the articles and popular blog posts, I noticed that there was much less attention to some of the economic and brand-related incentives for Docker to make this move. So although I’m not super close to the Docker community or the inner reasoning here, I thought I’d throw in my two cents.

Last year I wrote a post highlighting three of the basic brand architecture models that many open source brands use for their company, product, and project names. Until now, Docker fell into the first scenario outlined in this post, with the same “Docker” brand being used for the company name, the product name, and the project name.

This is the most common naming structure for open source brands, especially when people who work at the company play a leading role in the open source project. And it is common because it creates several early benefits.

First, it takes advantage of branding economies of scale. Because it is expensive to support multiple brands, when an open source project is young and a company forms around it, it is more cost effective to only create one brand (like Docker) and invest all of the energy in that versus trying to build multiple brands at once.

Second, since an open source project filling a critical need in the market can build a massive number of users quickly, the brand can also build positive brand equity quickly.

Using the same brand name or a derivative for a paid product ensures that these positive brand associations transfer over, which increases awareness and consideration for the paid version––if the benefits of the paid version are clear and desirable.

Example: “I’ve been using ShinyOpenSourceFoo for free for the past two years, and it is awesome. But now I need to do more advanced stuff. I should go check out ShinyOpenSourceFoo Pro, because I hear it does things I can’t do with the free version.”

Awareness of free version —> consideration of paid version. Simple.

So that’s the benefit of having a model like Docker used until a few weeks ago: Generating massive brand awareness that, in theory, will lead to consideration of a paid product.

But the chief drawback of this model is also pretty critical. And it comes down to a simple principle:

It is really hard to convince people to pay for a brand they can get for free.

When the project and product brands are the same, it becomes necessary to plunge into features and functions to communicate the differences between the free and paid versions.

Example: “So wait, I can get 90% of what I need with the free version of ShinyOpenSourceFoo. But if I want to get ImportantServiceX and BadassUserInterfaceY, it’s going to cost me $3000 a year to get ShinyOpenSourceFoo Pro? Guess I have to decide whether it is worth that much.”

Which leads us back to Docker and Moby. There are two very prominent hints to the brand and economic reasons why Docker made this split now. The first is articulated in this CIO Magazine article by Swapnil Bhartiya. From the article:

Patrick Chanezon, chief developer advocate at Docker, told me that back in 2003, Red Hat assembled the Linux kernel with lots of different components into the Fedora collaborative project. Fast forward to 2017, Docker is doing the same thing for containers with the Moby Project.

“We are going to make sure from the very start that it’s a community run project. We are designing open governance that’s inspired by successful projects that have done things like that in the past,” said Hykes, giving credit to Fedora and Red Hat. “We are not reinventing wheels here, we are standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The second is in the post-announcement Hacker News thread, where Solomon Hykes concisely answers two very critical questions:

Who will be able to use the Docker trademark?


If someone built a fork of Docker CE from Moby, can they still call it Docker?


So there you have it. Docker modeled their strategy after how Red Hat split Red Hat Linux into Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora. As anyone who was there at the time may remember (was it really almost 15 years ago?), this split was painful, with many community members feeling like the Red Hat brand was being taken from them. We created a pretty awesome new brand (Fedora) that now has amassed some very positive brand equity on its own, but at the time this was a rough transition.

I usually refer to this split as the “ripping off the Band-Aid” event, and this is what Docker is going through now.

Looking back, the split into Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora was one of the smartest business decisions Red Hat ever made, even if it caused a sense of loss in the community at the time.

  • It created the separation between a paid brand (Red Hat) and a free brand (Fedora) that allowed Red Hat to differentiate the traits of Red Hat (trusted, reliable, and stable) from Fedora (latest tech, innovative).
  • It created the brand foundation for a paid enterprise software model that Red Hat has now ridden to $2B+ in annual revenues.
  • It allowed the community the freedom to innovate without being held back by the stability/reliability demands of deep-pocketed Red Hat customers.

But it also meant that there would no longer be anyone freeloading off of the power of the Red Hat brand. Only the products sold by Red Hat would be called Red Hat. Anyone could use the underlying open source code, as long as they didn’t refer to it as Red Hat. (For good reason: the Red Hat brand was a stamp of something that had been tested to be stable and enterprise-ready.)

What is happening here is Docker asserting ownership over the Docker brand.

My view would be that, like with the Fedora example, the company has given the community a pretty awesome alternative brand that will eventually stand for something on its own and give the community a lot of freedom to innovate in new and interesting ways.

But Docker is also circling the wagons from a business perspective to protect what is now a very valuable brand asset, creating some separation between a brand that they want you to pay to access (Docker) and one you can use or build other products off of for free (Moby).

So net net: if you are part of the Docker community, you might feel a sense of betrayal or loss right now, and you’d be within your rights to feel that way. Something you were a part of creating is being taken away from you.

But as a branding and economic decision, this is good business. It might take 5+ years, but if people put their passion and energy into molding the Moby brand into something awesome, and let the Docker brand become the heart of a profitable, successful open source business model (and let’s face it, there aren’t yet that many massive winners like Red Hat out there), the entire open source community may benefit in the long run.

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