The state of open source: Missteps and lessons learned

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. 5: Open source now enjoys a rich and complex history, which is largely the result of trial and error over the years. What would you say have been the open source community's greatest missteps, or lessons learned?


Bruce Perens

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

Perens: It's a lot easier to talk about missteps of a single company or a single project. The open source community is like an entire economy of software developers or an entire software industry. No real industry has central leadership, it's made up of separate players going their own ways. That makes it much more robust than a single company could ever be.

I see the biggest mistakes as happening in law rather than technology, because they're the ones that are the hardest to fix. Some of them are in courts, others in legislatures. IBM brought the lawsuit that made software patenting legal in the United States. The U.S. patent office actually prohibited software patenting before then. Reversing that prohibition was a big mistake for the entire software industry and the U.S. economy. State Street Bank did the same thing for business-method patents. The U.S. passed DMCA as law, and has pushed it on other countries, and that's very anti-customer and connected with the misguided war on the customer being waged by the music industry. Those are the mistakes I'd fix, if I could.


Matt Asay
Vice president of business development

Asay: Lesson No. 1: Intellectual property matters. By this I don't mean that the open source world is dismissive of IP claims. Far from it -- we absolutely rely on the integrity of IP in order to thrive.

No, what I mean is that in the open source community, we've been so intent on changing the world and how it buys IP that we've forgotten just how threatening this can be to the incumbent vendors. They've started to sharpen their knives (witness all of Microsoft's FUD), and the counterinsurgency is becoming ever-more sophisticated. Good code alone won't win this fight.


Eric S. Raymond
Programmer, author, and
open source software advocate

Raymond: We made our biggest misstep back around 1985, by letting our advocacy function get almost completely captured by the Free Software Foundation. On a purely technical level, open source could have become an effective movement any time after inexpensive 32-bit PCs became available around 1987. As it was, we lost 10 years because our theory was weak and politically tainted, our community fragmented, and our propaganda ludicrously inept.

To be fair, neither I nor anybody else wanted the advocacy job at the time. But it's notable that open source didn't break out of its hardcore-geek ghetto until Linus Torvalds and I found a better story to tell about it after 1997. Did you know that the Mayans invented the wheel but only used it for children's toys? Narratives really matter; open source wasn't the first technology to languish at the margins because it hadn't found the right generative myth yet, and it's unlikely to be the last.


Dave Rosenberg
CEO and co-founder

Rosenberg: There was no other way for open source to progress without trial and error related to both development and business. The biggest business misstep is probably the obsessive focus on licensing, which, while important, distracted people for way too long.

There are too many lessons learned to count, so I would say that open source projects and companies should have been much more aggressive at proving use cases in mission-critical environments. This has been going on for quite some time but has only started to get noticed in the last year or so.


Javier Soltero

Soltero:I'd argue the biggest lesson has been and will remain the "desktop issue." People jumped on Linux as a potential desktop replacement very early on, and the debate continues to this day. Meanwhile, the operating system and the associated infrastructure tools such as Apache, PHP, etc., continue to enjoy explosive growth and disruption on the server side. I know there are many who believe that Windows and even Mac OS X are bad because they're not open source. That might be true, but one cannot argue that the user experience for both of these operating systems blows away anything you'd get out of Linux (at least today). The lesson here is that open source can deliver more immediate, tangible benefits in certain areas than in others, and the market is smart enough to figure that out. We'll get a good Linux desktop one day, I just don't see it happening any time soon, and I don't know that that's the right priority given where desktop computing is headed.


Mark Spencer
Founder and CTO

Spencer: We have learned a lot of lessons. The project started without an organization, and nonprofit organizations helped and taught us how to interact in better ways with the community. Those were the early days. The next steps are to continue to grow and be relevant in a commercial organization to take open source to the next level with corporate focus and identity and penetrate mainstream businesses and markets.


Andy Astor

Astor: It's the same lesson that proprietary vendors have learned over the years, and that is that great software is not enough. I looked on SourceForge earlier today, and there are over 170,000 projects, and most of them are dead. Successful software, whether it's open soruce or proprietary, needs a combination of great development and features -- and distribution, marketing, salesmanship, and so forth. Linux would not be a mainstream operating system without Red Hat, and I'm sure that some of my good friends with disagree with me on that. I don't think we'd get too much disagreement that JBoss would be nowhere without the JBoss corporation, or MySQL without MySQL, and Sugar without Sugar. But I think it's true for independent organizations, too. In spite of being a fantastic database, PostgreSQL has had only modest success because it hasn't had a company behind it. We're working to make EnterpriseDB that company. It's more than a matter of building great software. You need marketing, service, salesmanship, support, and documentation -- all the things that open source projects don't necessarily want to do. And that's what capitalists do with software.


Robert Sutor
Vice president of open source and standards

Sutor: I wouldn't call this a misstep, but I'm dismayed when I see the relatively small efforts put behind industry-specific open source projects. Outside of education and the public sector in general, there are very few projects that have gotten a lot of attention and adoption. I love it when I see Sakai and Moodle doing well and competing in the education and learning area. We need to repeat that in insurance, banking, automotive, retail, energy, telecommunications, and all the other industries. Another thing I think we need to do is better promote and laud the free and open source heroes from around the world. These people have literally changed the IT industry, yet outside of a few well-known folks, many of them are relatively obscure.


Zack Urlocker
Vice president of products

Urlocker: I don't think there have been significant missteps at all. Here's an example. For 10 years, companies like IBM, Apple, and others attempted to dethrone Microsoft's lock on operating systems. They all failed and threw in the towel. Fast forward to today. What's the fastest growing server operating system? It's Linux, a platform developed by a student hacker out of Finland. The power of open source did what billion-dollar companies could not do. The lesson learned is that if you solve the right problem in a transparent fashion, you can make good software very popular through open source. Open source software like Linux, MySQL, and others have greatly disrupted the old ways of the software industry, and that's put more power in the hands of the buyers. That's a good thing.


Chris DiBona
Open source programs manager

DiBona: Best lesson learned: Careful selection of your project developers is what matters.

Big missteps: I think that the world of open source doesn't pay enough attention to what the BSD operating system flavors are doing. The open, net, and free BSD communities are pretty remarkable and deserve greater recognition for their work.

Biggest misstep: It always comes down to one thing: bad code. Accepting bad code = bad project. Bad code kills open source projects dead.

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