Cornerstones of Open Source

Open Source | 14th October 2019

Here are some perspectives I’ve developed about the nature of Open Source, its characteristics and how Open Source relates to the software industry. The aim of this post is to outline some of the discussions which Danese Cooper and I have been having on this topic, which will follow as a series.

Ultimately, I’d like to provide context to the enterprise about how to think about and interact with Open Source communities.

Creations

Over the 20 years of Open Source, two different methods of creation have emerged.  Those which originate within organisations which are shared with the public, Industrial Open Source, and those which originate from independent contributors without external monetary support, Artistic Open Source.  These methods of creation co-exist but can have very different people, patterns and potential.

People

Developers who create Open Source works in their own free time often have a different level of emotional attachment to their work than employees who have been hired to work on a project. Independent contributors tend to collaborate with each other in a group where the centre of gravity is a GitHub repo, the resulting creations are analogous to a tapestry woven by a group. With works created inside a corporation, which are subsequently shared as Open Source, all the people who worked on them initially were compensated for their time.  Once released, many will keep contributing to the project in their own free time, while others will move onto the next project. From the point of view of commercialisation of either type of project, it is important to understand the genesis of each project, Industrial Open Source vs. Artistic Open Source.

Problem

Projects that start in the Community, or Artistic, very often have a hard time competing with or transitioning into more Industrial patterns. Yet it is a natural progression – based on a desire to generate an income or to make an impact.  Sometimes corporates adopting Open Source give back through sponsorships, support and contributions – however, this is very unusual. The vast majority, well above 99% use the technologies without any contribution back to those who create them.

Many fledgeling software vendors who share their Open Source with a view to generating a revenue stream have found it challenging to be successful in this environment. The issue isn’t lack of willingness for corporates to support Open Source, it is more a lack of education about Open Source and the availability of simple mechanisms for them to support it while getting something back in return.

The development of viable economic models to support Open Source contributors hasn’t produced anything new that has proven successful in the last 10 years.  This means that there are significant barriers in place preventing contributors from being able to sustain a life where they can contribute to and support many of the Open Source projects that we have come to rely upon, not to mention the things they haven’t even created yet.

Opportunity

There is a big opportunity here – if we get this right we can help to nurture a generation of Creators, where their work can support the global economy. Success here will enable a greater number of people to focus on Open Source creation, and ultimately a working system of economics should further expand the number of creators – we should see an explosion of output.  From a societal perspective, there is a potentially transformative case study here: as an industry, we have the opportunity to drive a movement forward where contributors anywhere in the world, regardless of their background, or location can come together to build software for the common good.

Redefining natural resources

In this modern age, Open Source software underpins every new system being created today. It is a key enabler for productivity. We have on one side an exponential demand for software and on the other a linear growth in the number of developers in the world. Sharing of building blocks, scaffolding, architectures, patterns and components all give developers superpowers, it enables a team of 2  developers today to create the same thing today that would have required a team of 10 developers 5 years ago.

Open Source is a natural resource for the information age. We now need to shift our thinking about it to one of how can we best harness and protect this natural resource.

Open Source is the new water, we need to think about what a public utility will look like for Open Source: the end goal is to make it as simple as turning on the tap and clean drinking water flows out, sip ahh.

Imperative

Figuring out how to keep Open Source creators in the creative space for much longer in their lives will yield more for society than forcing them into classical employment.  We need to foster a renaissance of the invention and it will require people to understand the opportunity and to have the ability to contribute their time and energy to this cause.

Future – careers in Open Source

If we accept that we should now treat Open Source as a critical utility for business (just like water or electricity), we need to start planning for the future. Compelling to think that we can get to a place where being an independent Open Source developer could be a career option if we get this right. Imagine working for “Open Source” with a career path, healthcare, pension. A professional “open-sourcerer” – sounds kind of matrix meets cyberpunk, we totally should make this happen.

Stay tuned for the next in this series when Cian and Danese delve into the co-creation of and differences between Industrial Open Source and Artistic Open Source.

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