Industry, Community, Open Source

In "Radicalism in Free Software, Open Source" I contemplated the discourse of and around radicalism in and about Free Software and Open Source software. I think this post is a loose sequel to that post, and I want to use it to think about the role.

I suppose the ongoing merger of Sun Microsystems and Oracle, particularly with regards to the MySQL database engine weights heavy on many of our minds.

There are a number of companies, fairly large companies, who have taken a fairly significant leadership role in open source and free software. Red Hat. Sun Microsystems. IBM. Nov ell. And so forth. While I'm certainly not arguing against the adoption of open source methodologies in the enterprise/corporate space, I don't think that we can totally ignore the impact that these companies have on the open source community.

A lot of people--mistakenly, I think--fear that Free Software works against commercialism [1] in the software industry. People wonder: "How can we make money off of software if we give it away for free?" [2] Now it is true that free software (and its adherents) prefer business that look different from proprietary software businesses. They're smaller, more sustainable, and tend to focus on much more custom deployments for specific users and groups. This is in stark contrast to the "general releases" for large audiences, that a lot of proprietary audiences strive for.

In any case, there is a whole nexus of issues related to free software projects and their communities that are affected by the commercial interests and "powers" that sponsor, support, and have instigated some of the largest free software projects around. The key issues and questions include:

  • How do new software projects of consequence begin in an era when most projects of any notable size have significant corporate backing?
  • What happens to communities when the corporations that sponsor free software are sold or change directions?
  • Do people contribute to free software outside of their jobs? Particularly for big "enterprise" applications like Nagios or Jboss?
  • Is the "hobbyist hacker" a relevant and/or useful arch-type? Can we intuit which projects attract hobbyists and which projects survive because businesses sponsor their development, rather than because hobbyists contribute energy to them. For example: desktop stuff, niche window managers, games, etc. are more likely to be the province of hobbyists and we might expect stuff like hardware drivers, application frameworks, and database engines might be the kind of thing where development is mostly sponsored by corporations.
  • Is free software (or, Open Source may be the more apropos terminology at the moment) just the contemporary form of industry group cooperation? Is open source how we standardize our nuts and bolts in the 21st century?
  • How does "not invented here syndrome" play out in light of the genesis of open source?
  • In a similar vein, how do free software projects get started in today's world. Can someone say "I want to do this thing" and people will follow? Do you need a business and some initial capital to get started? Must the niche be clear and undeveloped?
  • I'm sort of surprised that there haven't been any Lucid-style forks of free software projects since, well, Lucid Emacs. While I'm not exactly arguing that the Lucid Emacs Fork was a good thing, it's surprising that similar sorts of splits don't happen any more.

That's the train of thought. I'd be more than happy to start to hash out any of these ideas with you. Onward and Upward!

[1]People actually say things like "free software is too communist for me" which is sort of comically absurd, and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of both communism/capitalism and the radical elements of the Free Software movement. So lets avoid this, shall we?
[2]To be totally honest I don't have a lot of sympathy for capitalists who say "you're doing something that makes it hard for me to make money in the way that I've grown used to making money." Capitalist' lack of creativity is not a flaw in the Free Software movement.
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