Open-Source Nirvana

The most recent issue of the Norwegian ComputerWorld contains several articles of interest from an open-source point of view. In addition, the subject has come up for discussion at work recently.

Who benefits from open-source? Primarily, it is the consumers of software. Yet the consumers of open-source devote very little resources to developing open-source software themselves. Perhaps they should?

The hardest issue for organizations using open-source contribute time and money to the development of open-source is the fact that it is hard to see that this is money well spent. Chances are that if you develop software for yourself, you’d like to keep it in house instead of helping the competition. And maybe you’d rather just like to wait for someone else to develop it instead. I will not try to address this really difficult problem, and rather ruminate over an ideal situation.

My company develops software that runs banking infrastructure. In order to run this business, we use tools like Spring, Hibernate, Axis, Ant, Maven, and many others. If we spend some money contributing to the further development of these tools, we would ultimately stand to benefit a lot (but so would our competitors).

Both the Norwegian, the Brazilian, and the German governments have recently distanced themselves from Microsoft, and are looking into using Linux and Open-Office in governmental offices. If these governments would spend some money contributing to these open-source efforts, they could ultimately reap the benefits in lower spending on good software. (All this would be a loss for Microsoft, but hey, they’ve got enough money!)

Some of the most popular new gadgets are portable digital music players like the iPod and iRiver (my favorite). Just around the corner is the wide-spread adoption of media servers. One of the most annoying thing about choosing a media server or music player is the software. “Do this partical player support this format? (probably not) Will they keep providing functionality in the future? (probably not)” By opening the source of their media player software, they can allow their own users to improve their product for them. They will also expand the marked for third party software for their products, further enhancing their value.

These examples show ways in which organizations, or society in general can benefit from open-source software. The problem is overcoming the mental barrier and, even harder, do it in a way that doesn’t give your competition a leg up over you. But open source makes sense in the same way as public roads, power grids, and publicly funded basic research. It makes a lot of economic sense to pool our resources together.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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  • Hi Johannes,

    I think in general it would be better for the industry as a whole for “consumers” of open source to contribute more back. Yet there are many reasons that doesn't happen so much–not least of them, the IP issues. (For example, we would not want any contributions to Spring that could potentially have unclear IP issues.) I think the issue of advantaging competitors is not so significant–very often, useful contributions are quite generic, like the frameworks themselves. Clearly it would be unreasonable, for example, to expect a company that implemented one of its core business algorithms as an extension of Spring to open that up to its rivals.

    But of course using the framework and reporting bugs/suggesting improvements on mailing lists/issue trackers is an important contribution in itself. It is *definitely* short-sighted to be a “silent” user of any project, open source or commercial: not in your interests or anyone else's.

    Rgds
    Rod

  • Hi, Rod

    Thanks for contributing.

    I am wondering if you could provide further information or references to the IP issues you refer to. Are these organizational issues (for example: An individual contributor haven't cleared the issues with his employer)?

    ~Johannes

  • Hi Johannes,

    I think in general it would be better for the industry as a whole for “consumers” of open source to contribute more back. Yet there are many reasons that doesn’t happen so much–not least of them, the IP issues. (For example, we would not want any contributions to Spring that could potentially have unclear IP issues.) I think the issue of advantaging competitors is not so significant–very often, useful contributions are quite generic, like the frameworks themselves. Clearly it would be unreasonable, for example, to expect a company that implemented one of its core business algorithms as an extension of Spring to open that up to its rivals.

    But of course using the framework and reporting bugs/suggesting improvements on mailing lists/issue trackers is an important contribution in itself. It is *definitely* short-sighted to be a “silent” user of any project, open source or commercial: not in your interests or anyone else’s.

    Rgds
    Rod

  • Hi, Rod

    Thanks for contributing.

    I am wondering if you could provide further information or references to the IP issues you refer to. Are these organizational issues (for example: An individual contributor haven’t cleared the issues with his employer)?

    ~Johannes