21 June 2008

Open minds about open source

Filed under: Open Source — David Wood @ 3:55 pm

There’s been a surprising amount of heat (not to mention vitriol) in the responses to recent blog postings from Ari Jaaksi of Nokia on the topic of the potential mutual benefits of a constructive encounter between Open Source developers and the companies who make money from mobile telephony.

Ari’s message (in “Some learning to do?“, and again in “Good comments from Bruce“) is that there’s a need for two-way learning, and for open minds. To me, that seems eminently sensible. This topic has so many angles (and is changing so quickly) that we shouldn’t expect anyone to have a complete set of answers in place. But quite a few online responses take a different stance, basically saying that there’s nothing for Open Source developers to learn – they know it all already – and that any movement must be on the side of the mobile phone business companies. The mountain will have to come to Mohammed.

At the same time as I’ve been watching that debate (with growing disbelief), I’ve been thumbing my way through the 500+ page book “Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software”. This book contains 24 chapters (all written by different authors), one introduction (by the joint editors of the book: Joseph Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott Hissam, and Karim Lakhani), one foreword (by Michael Cusumano), and one epilogue (by Clay Shirky). The writers range in their attitudes toward Open Source, all the way from strong enthusiasm to considerable scepticism. They’ve all got interesting things to say. But they have several things in common (which sets them apart from the zealotry in the online blog responses):

  • An interest to find and then examine data and facts
  • A willingness to engage in dialog and debate
  • A belief that Open Source is now well established, and won’t be disappearing – but also a belief that this observation is only the beginning of the discussion, rather than the end.

Another thing I like about the book is the way the Introduction sets out a handy list of questions, which readers are asked to keep in their minds as they review the various chapters. This makes it clear, again, that there’s still a lot to be worked out, regarding the circumstances in which Open Source is a good solution to particular technical challenges.

It’s a bit unfair to try to summarise 500+ pages in just a few paragraphs, but the following short extracts give a good flavour in my view. From Michael Cusumano’s introduction:

Most of the evidence in this book suggests that Open Source methods and tools resemble what we see in the commercial sector and do not themselves result in higher quality. There is good, bad, and average software code in all software products. Not all Open Source programmers write neat, elegant software modules, and then carefully test as well as document their code. Moreover, how many “eyeballs” actually view an average piece of Open Source code? Not as many as Eric Raymond would have us believe.

After reading the diverse chapters in this book, I remain fascinated but still skeptical about how important Open Source will be in the long run and whether, as a movement, it is raising unwarranted excitement among users as well as entrepreneurs and investors…

The conclusion I reach … is that the software world is diverse as well as fascinating in its contrasts. Most likely, software users will continue to see a co-mingling of free, Open Source, and proprietary software products for as far as the eye can see. Open Source will force some software products companies to drop their prices or drop out of commercial viability, but other products and companies will appear. The business of selling software products will live on, along with free and Open Source programs.

And from Clay Shirky’s epilogue:

Open Source methods can create tremendous value, but those methods are not pixie dust to be sprinkled on random processes. Instead of assuming that Open Source methods are broadly applicable to the rest of the world, we can instead assume that they are narrowly applicable, but so valuable that it is worth transforming other kinds of work, in order to take advantage of the tools and techniques pioneered here.

If I have one complaint about the book, it is that it is already somewhat dated, despite having 2005 as its year of publication. Most of the articles appear to have been written a couple of years earlier than the publication date, and sometimes refer in turn to research done even before that. Five or six years is a long time in the fast-moving world of Open Source.

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