Will We Rise to the Challenge?
To many, open source software (OSS) lost its geek fringe status long ago. Now OSS is becoming a leading destination of VC investment and is among the foremost generators of software and ideas. Supporters foresee the day when their approach will replace proprietary software as the leading platform for automation. But open source faces rising hurdles we can ignore only at our own peril.
Orthodox GNU, a kind of paleo-OSS, promises a progressive way to organize the software economy through a social contract among developers and users. Yet many advocates of software freedom are no longer driven by the purity of values that founded the movement. An impoverishment of ideals has followed the ironic comity of self-interests that engineered the boardroom coup of free software by the feel-good folks of Silicon Valley. The neologists of the “Open Source” moniker argue that overemphasis on ideology long ago reached the point of zero growth.
Pursuing more practical tactics, OSS mirrors the values and processes that built up the Internet. Like its spiritual teacher, OSS is driven by a global consensus economy which trades influence and advantages on a playground of simultaneous cooperation and competition. This more refined game of co-opetition trumps the knee-jerk gladiator marketing of some proprietary players whose goal is to smash opponents at any cost.
Riding the advantages of its more refined economic model, OSS demonstrated extremely rapid growth early in its life-cycle. Yet OSS can stagnate again because its free-for-all model is often riddled with inefficiencies and, furthermore, lacks the power of principles to drive truly collective collaboration.
Tame inefficiency with good leadership
Consider the redundancies of oocalc vs gnumeric, KDE vs GNOME, Red Hat vs Novell, Debian vs Ubuntu, or the seemingly unbounded license proliferation at OSI. Senseless duplication and competition among products and projects helps no one. The primary challenge lies in taming inefficiencies while still providing differentiation and value. Specialization must be harmonized through a progressive and larger vision as well as good leadership.
Platform neutral organizations like the industry-backed Free Standards Group (FSG), the increasingly global Open Source Development Lab (OSDL), and a newly sensible-about-licenses Open Source Initiative (OSI) together offer the real prospect to provide this vision and leadership.
Be practical but don’t forget the goals
The advantages to OSS of adopting more flexible and pragmatic values are widely acknowledged. At the same time, certain disadvantages of watered-down ideals can be offset by encouraging active collaboration through shared goals instead of dependency on rigid ideology. On the part of industry, cooperation via shared goals is facilitated by striving to meet common customer values and interests. On the part of governments, throughout the developed and developing worlds, collaboration is encouraged by articulating and pragmatically pursuing common societal goals rather than those of monopolists and vested interests. A great example of addressing broad social goals to help bridge the digital divide using techniques of global collaboration is the recent promotion and distribution of localized language versions of OpenOffice.org and other open source tools by India’s Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC).
As beneficiaries in the global OSS ecosystem begin to come online, simply copying and using is no longer productive. Participants, especially big industry and government, must contribute to generating new technologies and approaches.
Substantive contribution is far harder, but vastly more rewarding, than simply consuming technologies supplied by either proprietary or open source providers. Because OSS will stagnate if collaboration fails at any link in the chain, beneficiaries of OSS must give back to the common pool in order to scale up OSS’s Beowulf-like engine of collaboration. Fortunately, as OSS proliferates, more users are becoming contributors, so grand projects like Spain’s LinEX distribution is both a large OSS consumer (80,000 desktops) and now a valuable contributor to the open source commons.
We often assume that proprietary interests are the main enemies of OSS, but we must also be aware of the challenges we create for ourselves — redundancy and inefficiency, losing sight of shared goals and failure to contribute back to the commons. In the end, OSS must guard against becoming its own worst enemy.