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Saturday, March 18, 2006


Open Source Gets a Bit of a Wedgie

This week's issue of The Economist magazine is must read (note: registration and/or subscription required). The article 'Open, but not as Usual' describes how industries other than software are attempting to mimic the open source model. Industries as diverse as biotechology and pharmacuticals are mentioned.

The piece takes a pretty substantial whack at the entire concept. After describing the movement in the software arena, the limitations of open source organizations are explored. An example:

"But the biggest worry is that the great benefit of the open-source approach is also its great undoing. Its advantage is that anyone can contribute; the drawback is that sometimes just about anyone does. This leaves projects open to abuse, either by well-meaning dilettantes or intentional disrupters. Constant self-policing is required to ensure its quality."

Then we move on to Wikipedia as an example, which has recently been blasted by others (notably Nicholas Carr) for the quality of the entries, and has moved toward much tighter control over its content and who may alter or add to it:

"This lesson was brought home to Wikipedia last December, after a former American newspaper editor lambasted it for an entry about himself that had been written by a prankster. His denunciations spoke for many, who question how something built by the wisdom of crowds can become anything other than mob rule."

The piece continues on about quality, intellectual property issues, and makes some very astute observations about the real motivation and outcomes of open source software projects:

"One reason why open source is proving so successful is because its processes are not as quirky as they may first seem. In order to succeed, open-source projects have adopted management practices similar to those of the companies they vie to outdo. The contributors are typically motivated less by altruism than by self-interest. And far from being a wide-open community, projects often contain at their heart a small close-knit group.

With software, for instance, the code is written chiefly not by volunteers, but by employees sponsored for their efforts by companies that think they will in some way benefit from the project. Additionally, while the output is free, many companies are finding ways to make tidy sums from it. In other words, open source is starting to look much less like a curiosity of digital culture and more like an enterprise, with its own risks and rewards."

An example given directly afterward is MySQL, which freely gives out its source code, but the development is completely done by paid programming staff financed by the approximately 8000 'customers' that pay MySQL directly for support and maintenance. That looks a lot more like a business to me, and much less of a 'community.'

The article continues in-depth about open-source's strengths and weaknesses, but what's apparent to me is that a meshing of open source concepts and trditional corporate governance and control is taking place. It is beginning to appear that its not a choice of one or the other, it will wind up being a combination that, hopefully, gives us the best of both. The hue and cry of 'community' is being drown out by the hybridism with corporate interests that has emerged.

I think the same thing will happen to the various elements of Web 2.0 as well.

I need to read that article, but it sounds like they missed the whole intent of the open contribution model. As I think I heard Simon Phipps say once (and maybe he was paraphrasing Bill Joy?), the idea is that you don't really know necessarily who/where your best contributors are, so you should solicit community input to make sure you don't miss it. It doesn't necessarily mean that every contribution makes it in. I think that's really a creative innovation model - maybe layering "open source" on top of that idea cheapens it in some minds. Too bad.
Hi Scott - actually, my post will make much more sense if you read the article...wish I could have posted the whole thing verbetim but its lengthy and with fair-use laws and all...:)

Let me know what you think after you get a chance to see the piece...

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