These are some wild thoughts about Open Source, what it is, and what is should be.
Open source is the new demo
Companies used to make private software, but now they tend to create more open source. Though the open source product is only maintained by the company and is used as a step-up to the paying version.
Take OpenX for example, a package for online advertising. It comes in two flavors: an open source version (the original) and a priced private version. The open source version is far less superior and less maintained than the private. That idea is inherited from the demo-age: a demo was a free version that missed the features to be useful. Today the demo version is licensed as open source, but just because open source is popular.
The open source package isn’t made to be perfect, no, it’s only made to get people warmed up for the paying version. (in terms of OpenX: the open source version has many security holes, which makes it hard to consider).
Open source is company karma
Companies get popular by releasing their open source libraries next to their private software. I may be cynic, but I feel these packages are only made for company karma. A lot of companies sponsor open source projects only to gain karma from the community and eventually sell their services to them.
Because every company wants to have their own open source library, instead of contributing to a library from somebody else, you create a wide field of all sorts of packages that might be abandoned as soon as the company loses interest. The real, well working open source projects are the ones that are supported and used by a wide range of people over a long period of time. These are not the ones that are created because marketing told us so.
I hear you thinking, if private companies want to contribute to open source, why shouldn’t they?
When MySQL was sold to Sun, they didn’t know that Oracle would buy Sun. Widenius, main-developer of MySQL, tried to avoid that Oracle would takeover MySQL at all costs. Right before Oracle bought Sun, he forked MySQL into MariaDB. As soon as Oracle bought MySQL they started adding closed source modules. So there are 2 software packages that are about the same: MySQL owned by Oracle which is partly open and partly closed, and MariaDB owned by Widenius, which is entirely open.
The danger of open source bought or created with private money, is that it might be transformed into closed source software or be taken away from the community. The open source version could be stopped, put on low priority, or be degraded to “demo”.
These moves also cause confusion amongst users. Should they use Open Office or Libre Office? And do they care/know what the difference is? And what about organizations that use an open source package which suddenly transforms into closed source?
The idea behind open source (or community initiatives like Wikipedia or non-technology ones like Transition Network) is: you take from the community, you give to the community. Not necessary in terms of money, but in terms of your skills and your time – whatever your skill may be. Most initiatives need money, so money will be welcomed, but your input is of most importance for the success rate of the project. Wikipedia needs money to run its server and pay its few employees, but even with that money they wouldn’t have made it without the help of all the voluntary writers and readers.
Forks create chaos
The open source community splits into branches. Splitting into branches is a human thing that has been around since the beginning of politics and religion. Splitting up creates quantity but not quality. Just take a look at the discussions about Unity, the new desktop layout of Ubuntu. A part of the community solved it by suggesting another Ubuntu that didn’t implement Unity: Linux Mint. And while Linux Mint is great (I use it daily), why couldn’t we simply agree to stick to Ubuntu and implement the option to disable Unity. It’s open source so it’s possible.
This is where Open Source should make the difference with Microsoft. Microsoft did an equal move by removing the start-button and implementing a dysfunctional desktop (Metro) without any way to “change back to normal” (while Windows users crave for a solution to make their pc’s go faster and don’t care about a new desktop).
Instead of creating one successful well supported product, we create forks, versions that are just slightly different than the original.
All these branches, “doing this different because we believe it’s better” make it impossible to maintain oversight. This is the comparable to Microsoft trying to push their “standards” just for the sake of having an own (in their case: patented) standard.
There are dozens of ways (libraries) to upload a file on a website. If I really want to have the best solution, I have to go to all these projects, demo it or install it. It would be better to have one or two projects that are flexible and well supported by all browsers. Developers just have to learn working with 2 packages and can start working for any employer or follow up any project. It could be taught at school, it could be far more popular and better than any of the dozens of libraries today.
This is the real pain: “wild” libraries as opposed to “well supported” libraries. This is what gives open initiatives a bad name: the lack of equal quality. Because everybody can create open source, there’s no control, hence no quality assurance.
I am well aware of that contradiction. It’s a debate: do you allow anyone to contribute (democratic) and risk quality instabilities, or do you select the contributors that probably will assure quality but make it less open?
What to do with “bad” contributors/modules?
At my job, an alternative online newspaper, we have a comparable problem. Many of our writers are volunteers, some of them can write good articles, some of them don’t. But what do we do with bad writers? There are 2 schools of thought:
1. We allow bad writers to continue an open democratic website where everyone can report what they want, with the risk that bad articles can harm our quality level (and reputation). Bad writers take a lot of time and effort (it’s more work to rewrite a bad article than to write a good article yourself).
2. We only keep the good writers. That would transform our website into a closed medium and conflict with our basic ideas. By maintaining a high standard we could scare away potential new volunteers who think they’re not good enough but might be.
Keep in mind that some volunteers are bad writers but have interesting things to say. Though, there aren’t enough resources to train every volunteer who fits that category.
We’ve discussed this for hours and it’s hard to figure out a middle way. Currently we have to idea to “star” contributions which we think are good, a quality label. We only want to make that clear with layout changes, because we don’t want to add a textual “warning-this-article-sucks-disclaimer”. That kind of disapproval would make the volunteer displeased, if not angry.
I think that idea would work for Open Source as well, and some of them have started such an idea. Drupal contributors, for example, start with a sandbox project that has to be reviewed by an admin. If your sandbox is alright, it will be transformed into a module. Too bad, too many modules have features that are just slightly different than another. This confuses people: “what module should I use? Google Analytics Integrator? SEO Expert? or just the module named Google Analytics?”
The bigger plan is of most importance
Just “starring” doesn’t work if you allow every module by the simple rule that the contributor must be a good coder. There needs to be a bigger plan:
- What modules do you want?
- Are the current modules good enough?
- Which modules should be replaced by better ones?
- Who wants to manage that?
- Do we allow everyone to contribute? Or how will we select?
- Is the project “owned” by a private investor? And do we allow that?
- How do we collect money in case we need it?
- How do we get people to contribute?
- How do we handle requests for certain modules that might not fit our software?
- Do we risk losing users by not implementing certain features or do we implement everything just for the sake of attracting as many users as possible?
- Who will decide what to implement? How is that process defined?
- How do we handle bad content/contributors?
- Is their a “leader”, someone who pulls the strings? A decision maker? And if not, how do we organize?
I know this comes scarily close to management, but these are questions any serious open project will have to answer some day. It would be a pity if open source projects fail by not thinking these through. These type of questions should be answered for every community project, and not just tech ones.
The reason I think why these questions are left unanswered, is because it’s not a pleasant task and it doesn’t add production value right away. If I spent one week thinking about the questions, I loose one week of coding. And, maybe my time is limited to one week. In case of open source, most contributors are developers. And developers want to develop. They don’t want to waste time on the above questions, no, they want to code, rather now than tomorrow. Many developers, like me, don’t like to “manage”. They get behind their computer, start coding, and hope someone will spontaneously say “hey, can I contribute?”. That someone would be a great coder with the exact state of mind as ourselves, and not some sucker who just created his first html-page.
If I look deeper into myself, the thought that someone would “take over” my project, scares me. That’s perhaps another reason why some questions don’t get answered. If other people involve, I could loose the project, my name in bold on the about-page.
Of all the payed web-projects I left, every now and then, I check back on that site to see how things went on. What did they implement? What did they cut? How did they handle that complex js-problem?
It happens that nothing changed at all: the bug that was reported 5 years ago is still in it, the “temporary” solution has become older than my cat, and the space looks frighteningly… dead. Is this what I created? Did someone forget to turn that server off? Is it all forgotten?
Or, the other side, the project is gone, replaced by something flashy else, dumped on a backup harddisk in a basement.
Luckily, most of the times, the project appears to be in good shape, nice features have been added, developers clearly knew what they were doing. It has been handled respectful. This is what well managed open source projects should become. This is why the questions are important.
I better start thinking about the questions right away… but first I want to code that feature that will make the project look awesome.