There Is No Open-Source Community

Professor Jerry Mechling invited me to be a guest instructor in his “Leadership for a Digital World”
course at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government today.  As part
of  the class, we’re interviewing Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn on
the state’s priorities for IT-enabled initiatives.  Peter is a
well-known proponent of open-source software alternatives for the
public sector, and a primary force behind the Government Open Code Collaborative

To help myself prepare for the class, I’ve put down some
observations on open-source which I hope will be helpful to others for
whom open-source is unfamiliar but potentially important.  In the
past, I’ve been a user of open-source software, a senior executive in
both open- and closed-source software firms and at an impartial
integrator, a board member of an open-source software consortium, and a
sponsor of mission-critical application development efforts that use
open-source software in major organizations.  So hopefully my
experiences will be helpful too.

A few words of explanation:

There are two ways of distributing software.  One way is called
a “binary” distribution.  This means that what you get is a bunch
of ones and zeros that a computer can make sense of, but which humans
can’t.  Another way is to distribute the “source code”, or the
code in which the program was originally written.  This allows
users of the software to modify the source code for their purposes as
they see fit. 

Binaries can be distributed free of charge (this is sometimes called
“freeware” or “shareware”), and they can be copied.  They just
can’t be modified.  In commercial software, getting binaries to
work requires a license key, a unique code that unlocks the
binary.  You can copy commercial software if permitted (for
example, to make a backup copy), but you need that license key to make
it work.  Sharing the license key is usually not kosher.

With open-source though, you can view, copy, edit, and redistribute
the “secret sauce”.  However, the terms of permissible
redistribution vary widely according to the specific license under
which a user originally obtains open-source software.  Some
licenses like the GNU (GNU’s Not Unix) Public License, or GPL, require
that any modifications made to the original source code must be
redistributed openly (that is, as open-source, not binary  format)
if they are redistributed along with the original source code (which
itself must of course be redistributed as open-source).  Other
licenses, such as the Mozilla Public License, or MPL,  allow open-
or “closed-source” modifications to piggyback on re-distributions of
open-source software, at the discretion of the people or organization
who write the modifications or extensions to the base code.

The proliferation of open-source software licenses — check out http://opensource.org
— illustrates both the vitality of the open-source world, but also the
myriad and widely-varying interests and strategies being pursued by its
participants.  Which brings me to the principal point of this
essay, namely, that there is no such thing as “the open-source” community.

Why does this matter?

I meet people all the time, both folks who work in open-source
software projects as well as people who are current or potential users
or sponsors of applications that use open-source software, who make
assumptions about what open-source means, how it will work, and how its
providers will behave, that are based on really bad assumptions about
things like quality, cost, and process.  Many believe generally
that open-source is either inferior or superior to closed-source
alternatives.  A better perspective is that “it depends.”

The first rule of software selection is to have a clear idea of what
your requirements are.  A common mistake is to stop at defining
the features you need, and to ignore performance (including scalability of this performance to however many users you need to support), usability, extensibility (how sophisticated and well-documented are the API’s provided), usage and support, total/ lifetime cost of ownership, and degree of legal risk, among others.

The most helpful thing you can do when considering open- and
closed-source alternatives to meet whatever needs you have is to forget
the labels “open-source” and “closed-source”.  For any given set
of requirements, there are open-source alternatives that are far
superior to most if not all closed-source alternatives, and the reverse
can be equally true. 

So how do you figure out what software makes sense? 
Unfortunately it’s getting harder.  While I claim that there is no
open-source community (certainly not any more, though there may have
been one in the past), there are many open-source
communities.  Each of these has its own unique and often
competing interests.  In the past, this divergence of interests
has been masked by the existence of a common “enemy” — usually
Microsoft — and smaller, less mature markets.  But, as the
markets for open-source software expand and the communities become
increasingly commercialized, competition intensifies.  With this
competition comes, via human nature, a lot of hype and FUD-based (Fear,
Uncertainty, Doubt) marketing.  Each project’s proponents make
claims about the universal value and applicability of their own hacks,
in many cases ahead of any reality.  In the commercial /
closed-source world, the defense is opacity — you can’t see the code
to evaluate whether or not these claims are real.  In the
open-source world, the defense is extensibility — if you don’t like
what you see, you have the freedom to extend it.  The latter
defense is better than the former, but not by much.

(Related to this is a problematic expectation for how new
open-source code gets developed.  Many people assume that if they
wait around, “the open-source community” will sense their needs and
develop what’s required, for free.  I suppose this is
statistically possible, in the same way that Shakespeare’s monkeys 
will eventually get around to finishing things.  But as a
practical matter, most open-source software development is funded by
someone.  And even if someone else builds what you need, you have
to be mutually aware and willing to engage.  Also, it’s especially
nice if your paths are roughly parallel and not just the momentary
crossing of significantly different development vectors, and this takes
ongoing coordination, which itself requires funding.  And it’s
even more important that there not be two of you, but lots more users,
and committed users at that.  Naivete about this is not unique to
users of open-source software.  Plenty of people “in the
community” have expectations for altruism that get disappointed all the
time.  A better assumption is that people might share what they
have already (funded and) developed themselves, if it’s in their
interest to do so.)

What can users do to help themselves?

I’ve been thinking, not originally, that the best way for users to
approach open-source software projects is to “open-source” their requirements,
and work to reconcile their differences into as few specifications for
starting-point solutions as practical.  Then let software
providers, both open- and closed-source, compete based on the best
combination of answers to the different dimensions I described
above.  (Good answers come with proof points — real users.)

In the private sector this is harder, because those requirements
often reflect proprietary trade secrets (implied processes,
etc.).  But it seems to me that in the public sector, and in
education as well, this secrecy constraint does not exist or even make
sense.  I suppose these requirements are already public somewhere,
but they sure are hard to find.  Further, they are most certainly
not reconciled across all of the different entities whose needs are
sufficiently overlapped to make it worthwhile to do so.  Perhaps
there is a role here for intermediary associations.  An
enterprising community that leads this “standards-setting” effort on
behalf of potential users, which also benefit from intimacy with them,
might make a good partner.

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