The Economist on open source projects

To get a sense of just how powerful the open-source method can be, consider the Firefox web browser. Over the last three years it has crept up on mighty Microsoft to claim a market share of around 14% in America and 20% in parts of Europe. Firefox is really a phoenix: its code was created from the ashes of Netscape, which was acquired by AOL in 1998 when it was clear that it had lost the “browser war? to Microsoft. Today, the Mozilla Foundation manages the code and employs a dozen full-time developers.

From that core group, the open-source method lets a series of concentric circles form. First, there are around 400 contributors trusted to offer code into the source tree, usually after a two-stage review. Farther out, thousands of people submit software patches to be sized up (a useful way to establish yourself as new programming talent). An even larger ring includes the tens of thousands of people who download the full source code each week to scrutinise bits of it. Finally, more than 500,000 people use test versions of forthcoming releases (one-fifth of them take the time to report problems in bug reports).

From this story in the Economist; this part of the story is about how an organizational structure has emerged in open source software development process. It made you go ‘huh?’, didn’t it? I mean, is it so surprising that there must be an organization for a project — even if it is open source — to be effective? If you read a bit further, you know why it’s surprising: the Economist started with some strange preconceptions about open source projects:

One reason why open source is proving so successful is because its processes are not as quirky as they may first seem.

A little later, a Harvard professor is quoted:

“These are not anarchistic things when you look at successful open-source projects -— there is real structure, real checks and balances, and real leadership taking place?.

Quirky? Anarchistic? If you set up an open source project with these adjectives, then pretty much everything you are going to say later is going to look amazing. And, guess what? The rest of the story does indeed tell you that it’s all quite amazing.

Since it’s all quite amazing, the Economist has to de-mystify the process for its core readers. Thus, it makes the curious claim that the organizational structures in open source projects are not all that different from those in traditional businesses.

In order to succeed, open-source projects have adopted management practices similar to those of the companies they vie to outdo.

This claim is quite a stretch; I mean, which company has to worry about managing hundreds of thousands of workers volunteers who give their time and effort for free?

Because it starts with a ‘quirky’ premise, the Economist ends up saying stuff that just doesn’t make sense. Such as this one:

The contributors are typically motivated less by altruism than by self-interest.

Given its ideological lenses, the Economist cannot pretend to understand something as strange as ‘altruism’. While it is true that people at the top levels of the open-source pyramid do get paid for their work, there are scores that don’t. Also, by the very nature of their participation, only a small fraction of volunteers can expect to get showered with peer recognition, the other currency that’s quite famous in open source literature. Yet, projects such as FireFox do attract so many volunteers. So, statements such as “contributors are … motivated less by altruism than by self-interest” show up, more than anything else, the cluelessness of the folks who wrote this Economist story. Indeed, the rest of the story has very little to back up this strange and sneaky claim.

In spite of these problems, the Economist story has some interesting stuff about how open source projects are similar to ‘traditional businesses’ when it comes to making money. There are quite a few companies that have sprung up around open source software, and they do earn real money. MySQL, for example. Did you know that this database software is used by Yahoo! and Google? The story also talks about some interesting companies that are exploring the use of the open source concept to realms other than software.


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