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Open Source: It’s not just about the software January 19, 2006

Posted by Matsu in Technology.

Right now I am attending a Lexington Professional User’s Group (LPLUG) meeting where we are watching an interesting video about open source software and the open source community.

It is fascinating to hear about the evolution of software development when a single programmer collaborates with one or more other programmers and the social dynamics that come into play. When you extend that to the open source movement, you end up with many programmers who may be total strangers, but are brought together because of a common interest in solving a particular problem through the development of software. Then, social structure is brought in to help organize the group in order to make the project a success, but that can easily morph into unnecessary rules and unwanted politics. The rules are created to insure that only like-minded people can contribute or maintain the code. Then, when there are disagreements on how to operate and who to include in the process then it can get very political. Of course, politics can be interjected even without conflict but that will just hasten the introduction of a conflict. That’s just human nature.

As I think about it, one of the greatest challenges to open source software and the open source community is the people who make up that community. They (or we) must protect ourselves from our own need for rules that are restrictive in order to build walls or exclude others. We are also vulnerable to the negative impact that social politics introduces in large groups that don’t have clear lines of authority and responsibility and are forming that in an almost ad hoc manner.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am very much in favor of the free-form nature of the open source movement and community. I believe the world has benefited greatly from the work that is done through open source projects. I just want to pass along the thoughts that come to my mind as I watch this video, and one thought or observation is the amount of work required to move through the sludge of social organizations and politics. It reminds me of the evolution of small businesses that become successful because they are small and nimble and beat the large corporations in certain niche markets. If those small companies are wildly successful then they grow into the large (and not so nimble) companies that are bogged down by policies and politics that can work against its future success if the leaders don’t intentionally work to maintain roots in the small business entrepreneurial model.

I can’t help but wonder how open source development and the open source community will change over time as it becomes more mainstream and less fringe. Will there be a spin-off at some point because the core open source community or open source movement will be too structured and bogged down in politics? If so, what will we call that spin-off group? Neo open source movement? Early open source? Anti-open-source open source software? Or, just Free Software?

I can’t wait to see how this all plays out in the years ahead. I’m certain it will be interesting and very likely unanticipated as open source has been unpredictable at times.



1. DrBacchus - January 20, 2006

I think that happens all the time. Although the OSI gets to define with the term “Open Source” means, Open Source, as a notion, existed long before the OSI, and will continue to exist if the OSI goes away. A fundamental notion of Open Source is that it gets to redefine itself if it doesn’t like how things are progressing. The ability to fork, as opposed to the ability that closed source has to “take my toys and go home” is also, interestingly, a huge motivator to get along. It’s better to resolve conflict than to lose the community. Or, as we like to say in the Apache world, community > code.

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