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Friday, December 22, 2006

Open Source Label : Less & Less To Be Seen

Jeremy Allison controversy again opens up issues centered on open source. Keith Harrison-Broninski writes about the current stir around open source software. After speaking with various people engaged in producing and/or using open source software he points to concerns centered on issues such as the following:
• Growing and retaining a developer team
• Growing and retaining a user base
• Maintaining code consistency and quality
• Preventing feature cherry-picking by competitors
• Monetizing products
• Retaining control over products
A closer look at this list would reveal that there is nothing at all in the above list to differentiate open from closed source. All software vendors have these issues and therefore, by association, so do their customers. Many people seem to view open sourcing software as a solution in itself - both a solution for vendors (to gain a community) and a solution for customers (to lower costs). This would not happen as in every area of life, you get what you pay for, and enterprise software is no exception. Complex issues of software development and use don't magically go away - they just pop up in slightly different forms.
He raises the question what what it means to say software is "open source". It can’t be just about access to program code. Enterprise customers of commercial software vendors have always been able to get hold of program source code if/when they need it, either by licensing it or by arranging for it to be held in escrow against the supplier going out of business. He sees that open source" is (or was) truly about is the community model of development, in which people from outside the boundary of a single organization actively contribute to the application, and engage with the developers to test it. This model is breaking down. Most successful open source applications these days are entirely controlled by a single commercial vendor - Sun (Java), IBM (Eclipse), RedHat (JBoss), and so on. Nearly all, if not all, "committers" to such open source projects work for the company concerned. So how are such applications genuinely different from Windows or WebSphere? The pendulum is already swinging back, away from open source and back towards more old-fashioned models of software production. It is quite possible that as we go forward, it will mean less and less to label a software application as "open source". Another hype going down the hill.

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