Sometimes I Can’t Help Myself (Rant)

After reading Tarus’s post, I couldn’t help posting my own response to Matt Asay’s CNET blog. I know I shouldn’t rise to the bait, but sometimes, you just have to get it out. I was as frustrated as Tarus after reading it… Feel free to read it yourself, but don’t click the ads, click mine instead! (cough, sorry)

Anyways, CNET’s lovely comment system apparently doesn’t believe in carriage returns, you’re only supposed to post in sound-bites I guess. 😉 So, I’m going to repost my response here, in a form that looks less like a Giant Blob o’ Text (and with a few changes for emphasis). Also, in my original comment I accidentally wrote “free-loaders” once instead of “free-riders.”

I have read a few of your previous blog posts with interest, but I can only assume that this time you’ve gone the way of Dvorak and are posting sensational ideas for the purposes of ad revenue for CNET. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

You posit that because communities don’t grow on software that gets “open-sourced”, software doesn’t grow on communities. You couldn’t be more mistaken. Nearly every open-source project started as a few people and grew into a community, and then grew more software as a direct result of that community. Or, as you call them, “free-riders.”

Now, you are correct that communities don’t magically form when a closed-source company says, “Ahh, look! We are such benevolent and wonderful people that we are opening our software upon you plebes. Flock to us!” that does not mean that software can’t be born the other way around. There are many many examples that prove the point. Heck, open-source software was not even on any business radar until the “free-riders” made it what it is today.

The “free-riders” are the ones who turned an open-source project with one guy scratching an itch into a project with multiple contributors because they said “hey, this is cool, I wonder if I can help out?”

The “free-riders” are the ones who ran the bleeding edge version first and found (and sometimes fixed themselves!) bugs so your Enterprise customers could take advantage of the rock-solid reliability of open-source software when those bugs got fixed.

The “free-riders” are the ones who helped other “free-riders” on the project’s discussion list when they were trying to install the software, so the user-base grew, even though they couldn’t contribute code.

In other words, the “free-riders” are not just some abstract pool of people from which you extract cash. In a true open-source project, they are the foundation that makes the project something great. Everyone who is a contributing part of an open-source project was once a “free-rider” who just wanted to try it out. Every person involved in any way at all adds momentum, even if it’s just by asking a question and being answered on the list. That answer goes into the global pool of knowledge (which maybe a future user will find, while googling, and won’t have to ask himself).

Of course, if you’re an Enterprise-with-a-capital-E company that “value-adds” on top of open-source code, you see them as “free-riders” because you don’t really have a community in the first place, you just have users. The users of the open-source part of your software are only there at the whim of the proprietary side of the business. There’s too much risk the community will do something at odds with the direction you want to take the proprietary parts of the system for them to be able to form a true community in the sense “real” open-source projects can.

In the end, the “free-riders” are only a negative if you aren’t truly an open-source company. They are an adversary that could cut away at the functionality you charge for, rather than users who are empowered and have the right to contribute and make stronger something larger than themselves.

I just really have a hard time believing that someone who is writing in the technology industry specifically on issues of open-source software and business could truly believe that the communities are not an integral part of what makes open-source software good, much less that they’re “free-loaders.” It boggles the mind.

He implies that open-source software is only created by taking a closed-source company and opening the code, when in fact, that is the rare, degenerate case. Most successful open-source software comes from a good idea, some hard work, and the “marketing” of that software by “free-loaders” to their friends, associates, and employers.

Some companies can be successful by doing it the other way around, but except for some of the counterexamples like Mozilla, the most likely outcome is being bought and then being closed-source’d by your new investors, or failing just like most other startups, “open-source” or not. True open-source software has legs commercial software doesn’t specifically because it can keep going long after any commercial interest fails or wanes, as long as the community still wants it around.

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