The state of open source: Competition and dissent

Roundtable: 11 leaders from the open source and vendor communities discuss the current open source climate and outline the challenges and opportunities ahead

Question No. 7: There has been a fair amount of controversy, competition, and dissent within the various open source communities. Does this lack of agreement damage the long-term goals of open source, or would you like to see more of this?


Eric S. Raymond

Programmer, author, and
open source software advocate

Raymond: Some of it's healthy. Multiple projects competing for the same ecological niche can be spurs to each other. Some of it's not -- the amount of flamage that goes on over license choices and ideology and intracommunity politics is, frankly, ridiculous.

Evolution is messy. Free markets are noisy. Communities full of passionate people are disputatious. But these things beat hell out of their only alternatives. I wouldn't say I actually want more "lack of agreement," but I accept it as a consequence of dealing with human beings.


Dave Rosenberg
CEO and co-founder

Rosenberg: I think we have just enough as it stands. One of the interesting psychological aspects of open source is the fact that it brings together very smart, very interested people. In a sense, open source has created a new development civilization that comes with inherent conflict to develop a greater good. Were it not for this conflict, I don’t think we’d be nearly as far as we are today.


Javier Soltero

Soltero:Lack of agreement within an specific community is part of the process of arriving at a better result. However, the way disagreement is handled can suck a ton of energy from a project and create situations where things just don't get done. It also gives adopters of open source software a reason to doubt whether using the software is the right idea. Thankfully, there's a lot more experience in the art of governance of open source projects by both companies and individuals. This means that while there's always some amount of friction in every project (and it happens in closed-source projects, too, people just don't see it!), the end goal of the community is the same and the project charges ahead.


Mark Spencer
Founder and CTO

Spencer: As projects grow to compete with one another, it helps the de-facto leaders of the project to focus and be better and faster at delivering value to users. In Asterisk's case, there are forks of the software that lack alignment with the project. These other projects have not gained traction as a whole but have driven Digium to be better at delivering the promise of both community-driven software and commercial for-profit software. This helps reinforce our model's effectiveness. At the end of the day, there are few top-notch developers to go around, limiting the number of projects that can gain traction in any given market, so that's the biggest downside to the competition. The hardest part for me personally as it relates to competition is having built a company to support my open source project and having to compete against companies who use my own software to build businesses which are not only competitive to my own but take away from my ability to support the very projects they're using to build their businesses on. To some degree, this is a risk of open source, but it doesn't make it easier for me as a developer/entrepreneur.


Andy Astor

Astor: I want to see more of it. Conflict is always tough on communities, but it also always drives better results in the long run. In this, conflict is akin to competition, which drives better performance, speaking from a capitalist's perspective. Most of the competition and dissent within open source communities happens around questions of what to build and how to build it, both of which are essential to spurring innovation. As for tensions between commercial and noncommerical approaches to open source, I think the aversion to business interests are fading. Serious developers are generally very interested in seeing their work become successful. And in this age, success means widespread use, which is very much tied to the need for the kinds of services, documentation, and support business interests can provide.


Chris DiBona
Open source programs manager

DiBona: No, I think that it is a shame that the open source development community fights so much, but ... if that's what it takes -- and I think it might be exactly what is needed -- to create great software, then so be it. It is funny, though, for all the talk about open source infighting, it is nothing compared to what is happening within some companies -- not Google, thankfully.


Zack Urlocker
Vice president of products

Urlocker: I'm not sure what you're referring to here. I think there's probably the same amount of competition and dissent in open source projects as in any other complex software project, particularly with regard to projects that involve participation with people coming from multiple different companies. It just happens that some of this takes place in public so it's more visible.


Robert Sutor
Vice president of open source and standards

Sutor: I think within many proprietary software companies and behind closed doors, there has been a fair amount of controversy, competition, and dissent. Open source people just get to air their "dirty laundry" in public. I don't necessarily expect more of this, but I think that the value of transparency in knowing how decisions are made and who influences them outweighs any attempt to curtail public and noisy discussion. I don't think it damages the long-term goals of open source, but how people behave in such discussions goes a long way to establishing their reputations, which may affect their personal long-term goals.


Sam Ramji
Senior director of platform technology

Ramji: We’ve made so much progress in terms of opening the channels of dialogue between the OS community, partners, vendors, and customers. Dissonance won’t help anyone progress and innovate. One of the biggest misconceptions that we continue to battle is that we compete with open source. Microsoft does not compete with open source. We have over 70,000 commercial software companies as Microsoft partners, and we compete with a relatively small number of commercial organizations. For example, when we did the deal with JBoss, we found that half of their users were running on Windows. After the deal, we sold more Windows server licenses. So if you want to look at this from a competitive standpoint, our work with JBoss essentially helped our Windows server business grow.

As for the overall conversations in the various communities -- I think we progress as an industry and as a species though honest conversations and a process of “creative destruction.” Dissent coupled with rational discourse leads us to new ideas and solutions. Choice and independent thinking are hallmarks of the most successful open source projects, and I can’t see how you would remove this characteristic and still see the communities grow and evolve.


Matt Asay
Vice president of business development

Asay: We have a long way to go before open source is "perfect." Until we reach that point, I'd like everyone haggling vociferously. It's when we all agree that it will be time to get suspicious.

For the moment, I just want to see Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, and IBM develop their own vibrant corners of the open source universe. I want them at the table as full participants. This will require them to change some aspects of their business, but I think they'd find them revelatory rather than ruinous. These are some of the smartest companies on the planet. I'd love to see the open source communities they could create, if they but wanted to do so.


Bruce Perens
Creator of the Open Source Definition
Co-founder of the Open Source Initiative

Perens: This question is about seeing that open source is a much bigger thing than just one company, even if the company you're comparing it to is one of the world's largest. Is the United States damaged by the fact that it did not start out with just one presidential candidate and stick to that one? Of course not! Are we damaged because stores compete and there's more than one place to get most anything? Your Economics 101 student would know better. Competition, argument, and dissent are how we arrive at the optimal way to do things. If you want a trendy term, consider it a sort of prediction market.

One company, with one plan, can't do what an entire market can do. Marketing has no crystal ball. If marketing folks were that good at forecasting the future instead of designing products, they'd be at home trading stocks. So, what open source uses instead is the wisdom of an entire operating economy. We try almost everything, and we apply a Darwinistic filter to the result. The good projects gain a lot of attention, and the boring projects only waste one person's time. That is more effective at creating new innovation and getting it into people's hands than any one company with a plan can be.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.