Open source needs a profit motive

If you can't scratch your own itch, the free market will

As Eric S. Raymond points out in his landmark work, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, the most powerful motive for open source developers is the need to “scratch their own itch.” They begin writing software to address their unique needs. As they meet other like-minded developers, they begin to pool their efforts, forming communities. But itch-scratching only tells part of the story. The reality is that, in many cases, itch-scratching alone simply doesn’t work.

End-users who criticize open source applications for lacking certain features are too often met with a predictable response: That’s your itch. Get out your compiler and start coding. The idea here is that to disparage an open source project is to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. You’ve benefited from all the work so far for free; rather than condemn, you should contribute.

But this attitude ignores the realities open source faces, particularly as it reaches ever further into the mainstream software market. Of course not every user of an open source word processor will be a competent application programmer. Likewise, not every programmer will have time to decipher the source code tree of a complex application. More importantly, some itches simply must be scratched, whether or not the person who points them out is capable of doing so.

Case in point: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ recent decision to go slowly in mandating ODF (OpenDocument Format) for all office documents. Under the commonwealth’s original plan, all government offices would be required to transition to applications that default to ODF, beginning Jan. 1, 2007. That deadline has now been put on hold, giving departments the option of using plug-ins to support the format instead.

The issue is accessibility. Advocates for the disabled say that OpenOffice.org and the other open source applications that support ODF by default do not meet the needs of computer users with disabilities. Allowing the use of plug-ins will let those users stick with Microsoft Office until the accessibility problems in ODF and OpenOffice.org can be addressed.

Just who will address those problems, though? Counting on disabled developers to scratch their own itch is clearly out of the question. Nor should a compassionate society rely on the selfless altruism of individuals to solve issues of social responsibility. Someone needs to come forward and make accessibility a priority in open source, but what motive could they have to do so?

The answer, quite simply, is profit. The failure of itch-scratching to meet all the requirements of software development is precisely the reason why open source needs the contributions and sponsorship of private companies if it is to succeed, every bit as much as it needs the contributions of self-motivated individuals. Itch-scratching will only take us so far, but nothing succeeds at sniffing out market opportunities like the profit motive.

That’s why the notion of open source as a socialist utopia is a misguided one. As collaborative development continues to mature, it’s more likely to evolve into a free market than a free-for-all. After all, scratching your own itch is only the start of the process. Real collaboration begins when I scratch your itch and you scratch mine.

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