App.net's open source failure

The company's business model put up too many barriers, and it's hard to compete without flexibility for all

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If that's true of a product where the anticipated relationship is non-specialist, it's doubly true if you're pushing service to developers. In the meshed society, developers care deeply about their flexibility. Being able to use code and data without asking permission, being able to improve both and pool improvements, being able to share with people and groups they choose without those people needing a relationship with the originator -- those are the core drivers of developer flexibility.

They are also the core values of open source. When an entrepreneur refuses to provide that flexibility, developers are justifiably cautious. App.net waved aside concerns about this as well, promising to compensate developers for their loss of flexibiity by sharing revenue with them. But arrangements like this are no substitute for the liberty guaranteed by open source; they can be changed or withdrawn at any time by fiat:

Additionally, as part of our efforts to ensure App.net is generating positive cash flow, we are winding down the Developer Incentive Program. We will be reaching out to developers currently enrolled in the program with more information.

In my original article, I said:

But for all the great words about "open" and "choice" and "ad-free" and all the other knocks against Twitter and Facebook and others, [App.net] lacks a vision for a future where open source software implements a federated architecture to create a community of peers who are free to leave but choose to stay. In the end, Dalton Caldwell and App.net need to embrace a vision of software freedom if they are truly to deserve our trust.

The remedial steps they are taking -- end innovation, stop sharing revenue with platform developers but leave both the messaging and developer communities closed so there can be no organic growth -- seem to militate against this advice. Copying Twitter's open sourcing of tools and elements isn't going to cut it alone. Each of those small projects may possibly develop a community -- some of Twitter's have evolved a life of their own -- but remedial open source rarely solves the sickness itself.

App.net's predictable failure arises from misunderstanding open source and the societal change behind it. It's not about giving stuff away or ceding control -- even if both naturally arise from doing things right. Rather, it's about growing a community of opportunity by making the liberties behind open source real for all. App.net didn't do that, and now it's paying the price.

This article, "App.net's open source failure," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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