✭ Is the “Open Source Bubble” Over?

I was pleased to be able to attend this year’s OSCON, O’Reilly Media’s open source convention held once again in Portland, Oregon in mid-July. There have been numerous reports about it, not least from the New York Times, but one that caught my eye was the meta-analysis from analyst Stephen O’Grady. O’Grady is characteristically detail-rich and his article is packed with Google Trends graphs, but this quote is key:

The business of selling open source software, remember, is dwarfed by the business of using open source software to produce and sell other services. And yet historically, most of the focus on open source software has accrued to those who sold it. Today, attention and traction is shifting to those who are not in the business of selling software, but rather share their assets via a variety of open source mechanisms.

If we look back to Eric Raymond’s seminal essay The Cathedral and The Bazaar, the model behind open source is clear; an open community gathered around a free software commons, with each participant “scratching their own itch”. But it’s clear we’ve forgotten this, to the point of delusional false conclusions based on partial insight. The enduring popularity of the false question “if you give it away free, how do you make money” shows that the echoes of the Cathedral model ring on long after we’ve realised that the Bazaar model is the one that works in the meshed era of the Internet.

Why is that? O’Grady seems to imply there’s novelty here:

The difference this time around is that by sharing the code developed internally as open source, it becomes possible to amortize the development costs across multiple organizations with similar needs.

But I believe that is a rediscovery, not an innovation. The anomaly is not that projects like Hadoop or OpenStack lack a company “monetising” them – it’s that we believe open source projects ought to have such a company. The past decade has been something of an “open source bubble”, with many people believing there is a fortune to be made if only they can find the right business model to pack around open source.

But that thinking has usually involved a compromise of one of the key qualities that make open source work. Usually it’s a desire for control or exclusivity in some form, but the outcome is always to progressively negate the “open source effect” in search of profit, by limiting the ability of every participant to get what they want and thus give what they can. While there’s clearly a niche for one or two expertly-balanced businesses, the propensity of commentators to focus on these colourful exceptions has created the perception this is the norm.

That anomalous decade is just about over. The new projects on the block are once again collaborative, seeded by companies whose business does not depend on selling the software or its direct derivatives. They involve synchronizing fragments of the interests of many, diverse participants rather than having the whole of a single party’s interests at their core. Every participant comes to them paying their own way rather than expecting the project to pay them.

They aren’t really new, either. They are a continuation of the quiet, enormous success of the Apache community and the GNOME community and their peers. This, not the commercial bubble, is the true open source way.

[First published in ComputerWorldUK]


2 Responses

  1. Excellent analysis. Open source works by creating a commons where people can share and benefit from the artifacts of their journey to accomplish something – and that something is usually in the physical world, and the software is a means to an end.

    The confusion comes from seeing software as an end-in-itself – particularly, trying to impedance-match the world-view of a technology press and analyst community weaned on software as an end in itself to a phenomenon that is fundamentally about software as a means to other ends.

    I do, however, think that the software-as-pure-commons model under-serves the developers of software in terms of recognizing the contributions of individuals. While the ad-hoc star system of for-profit open source sometimes has heaped praise on the few or the unworthy (in which category I might include myself), a non-corrupt means of recognizing key contributions to technology in ways that reach beyond the boundaries of one project, technology or language is still notably absent outside of academia – and ought to exist, not to feed the egos of programmers, but to allow communities to better benefit from each others work. (Zed Shaw writes an interesting rant at least tangentially related to this here – http://sheddingbikes.com/posts/1275989245.html ).

  2. […] of open source?” Earlier this month, Simon Phipps posted another great piece entitled Is the “Open Source Bubble” Over? on his Wild Webmink blog. Simon points us back to Eric Raymond’s seminal The Cathedral and […]

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