Open source development

One of the live issues in the software world at the moment is whether or not open source code can have long-term sustainability. That is, if there is no clear proprietary ownership can a user be sure that the code will be maintained and developed over a long period? Back in October I was commissioned to write up a workshop hosted by Oxford University’s OSS Watch service that looked at some of these issues. The article, “From a trickle to a flood”, has now been published.

One of the big issues is the methods, or models, that are used to create the code. There are a number of models that are being explored by different open source groups but the Oxford event focused on just one: the open (sometimes called the ‘community-led’) development model.

In this model a diverse community of developers and users work together for the longer-term benefit of the product. The argument is that sustainability can be achieved through the development of a wide and diverse community, a kind of eco-system, which nurtures and supports the code over the long term. The model works with what Harvard Internet lawyer Yochai Benkler has theorised as commons-based peer-production, a process by which everyone who contributes also gets something back that furthers their interests. One of the keynote speakers, Gianugo Rabellino, CEO of SourceSense, described it this way: “It is a bunch of folks, working together, with diverse motivations, and who are not bound by any strong tie – we don’t for example work for the same company…” He goes on to say that: “it is not just grabbing software, attaching an open source licence to it and dumping it somewhere. It is more about understanding and working with others. For me, it is the natural way to express oneself in a connected world”.

For people who are not used to working in this way I think these are quite hard concepts to grasp. There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that Gianugo was talking from the heart. He really believes what he says and lives the open development method as a kind of credo, which is what makes it so fascinating.

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One Response to “Open source development”

  1. Raza Rizvi Says:

    Paul,

    “…can a user be sure that the code will be maintained and developed over a long period?”

    This is the nub of the issue for a lot of people who deploy software for their own organisation. It is fine at the edges, in pockets, for niches, but for the core of what they do many are still wary of being left with code that they *can* alter but that they have *no skillset* to alter.

    We have all seen code that looks like it might meet our requirements on Freshmeat but which looks like it has fallen into the long grass because the primary developer has gone onto other things (or found a girlfriend…).

    Open Source is *absolutely* a useful addition to commercial code but while people believe that commercial companies have an imperative to continue development the only way for it to reach larger audiences is commercialisation of (at least) the support – like we have seen with operating systems (Redhat, Ubuntu – Canonical Ltd) or applications (OTRS, Sendmail) so that there is some comfort factor for those of us who are programmatically challenged by PERL, PHP, Ruby, C, Expect, or whatever 🙂

    I speak from the vantage point of being a person who:

    a) sees the benefits that commercial code gives for many commercial requirements
    b) has paid for commercial support of open source applications
    c) supports the adoption, modification, and re-release of open source code where appropriate

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