It's all about the middle ground

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (775 Words)

I always find Matt Asay’s blog an interesting read - even if I don’t always agree with him, his posts on open source are always thought provoking. Today he was talking about how Wikipedia’s contribution rate is falling and how that has parallels in open source; that the community is no replacement for a centralised, focussed team.

He’s right on the core point - at the heart of every successful open source project there’s always a core team (or individual), and in the really influential ones, that team is usually funded - Mozilla is famously bankrolled almost entirely by Google, the Apache foundation has many, many sponsors including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, Eclipse has IBM, and so on. Many of the big projects that don’t have more general sponsorship still have a core team funded by a dual-license or other premium software model: MySQL, RedHat/JBoss, Qt etc. Such guidance & direction at the core is crucial - at OGRE we have a core team too, except that we’re not directly funded by anyone in terms of developer time (we have several generous sponsors who cover the majority of our hosting needs); we guide it because we want to, and because we use OGRE ourselves too. My company is probably the closest thing to a core development sponsor, in that I’ll allocate “work time” to doing OGRE development that could otherwise be spent making commercial products or doing consultancy, but it’s by necessity small beer compared to the likes of Mozilla and Apache.

But I do think he underplays the changes that have taken place in the software development world. He asserts that because most headline software development is still focussed at big influential companies, we’ve mostly just rearranged the chairs a bit at the same banquet. I don’t agree with that at all - by nature it still makes most sense to concentrate much of the development in a small team for quality, consistency and organisational purposes, but the point is that where precisely this centre is determined primarily by merit, not by the boundaries of a company’s org chart. While the core team is doing a good job, and accepting reasonable patches and such, people are happy for the show to be run there. The community is still definitely involved in the development, and certainly adds considerably to the end result. Yes, proportionately the central team does more, but crucially, should anything go badly wrong - such as the core going in a direction a lot of people don’t like, or the product being sidelined, if there’s enough of a community a fork will emerge, with another core team to lead it. That’s a critical safety valve that keeps companies more “honest” than they had to be in the past, and is a vital insurance policy for anyone investing their own resources in a piece of software. Matt claims the ‘Command and Control’ setup of software vendors is still in place; I think his view is clouded by the fact that he’s solely focussed on enterprise software, and enterprise customers move at such a glacial pace that any change is largely imperceptible - to the extent that ‘community’ maybe does look a lot like the ‘customers / partners’ relationship of old. But that would be a bad call, completely ignoring the difference in the level of control that is ceded to a community versus the customers of old - sure, many enterprise customers may not wish to leverage that control, and would take a long time to move if someone else chose to do so, but that option is still always there. And not everyone in the world is an enterprise customer - the enterprise usually follows the grass roots eventually.

In practice, it’s really all about balance, the middle ground. Yes, we still need focii of development just to make sure things get done in a reasonable fashion - no-one likes chaos in their software. Yes, it makes most to have that focus funded, in a traditional company model, if that piece of software gets beyond a certain size / popularity. But that doesn’t for a second undermine the value of community participation; in fact the two are deeply interdependent - one without the other is just not sustainable in a sizeable project.

So, people certainly shouldn’t be deluded into thinking that random crowds of people on the internet will create great software without some organisation (the infinite monkeys creating Shakespeare fallacy), but they also shouldn’t think that community is disposable and that we’re in the same situation we were before but with a different label. Nothing could be further from the truth.