Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nick Carr: Bebo and Digital Sharecroppers

This was an interesting article by Nick Carr that popped up in Google Reader today - it's about the Bebo acquisition by AOL and how the founders have been rewarded handsomely, to the tune of $800 million, with diddly squat going to the artists who contributed site content. From the article:

As for the millions of members who have happily served as sharecroppers on the Birches' plantation, they'll get the satisfaction of knowing that all the labor they donated to their "community" did indeed create something of tangible value. No doubt they're thrilled that the little Bebo plantation, which they've tended so lovingly, is now part of the giant AOL plantation, itself part of the Time-Warner conglomerate.

The article goes on to reference a great NY Times op-ed by Billy Bragg. It's all must-read stuff.

In the Open Source world, we deal with this all the time. People often ask how we can make money off the backs of free labor, to which I always answer: we don't. But the question lingers, and for good reason. Being a community-centric company is a double-edged sword. After all, if you've successful in convincing a fair number of community members to buy into your vision, what, if anything, is your responsibility to them? Ultimately, my opinion rests on the assumption that is a rather different example from most Open Source community sites, because in those cases, the company gives the community items of great value, whether it's the software, better documentation, or simply the investment into care and feeding of the community.

This is in stark contrast to a community like Bebo's, where the vast majority of content comes from the users. Sure, web sites like my employer's are geared towards providing conduits for community contributions and feedback, but it's always clear in that case that the owner of the web site is the primary source of an overwhelming amount of the content. In Bebo's case, without user-generated content, there wouldn't be anything of value at all.

Well, at least I see a difference. What about you? What do open source companies owe their communities? What are their responsibilities? Put it in the comments below.

More Questions on the Open Source Initiative

In addition to my post yesterday on the subject of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and whether they represent us, I was encouraged to see a few others pop up with a similar line of thinking.

Mark Hinkle actually delved into the OSI by-laws and reported what he found.

Reuven Lerner opened the question of who should lead the Open Source community.

Both of these attack the problem from different angles, but the question remains: is the current setup the best we can manage? I would argue no.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Blogging Hyperic: Whither Initiative?

I just posted this on the blog:

There has been significant conversation around the OSI of late, spurred by Bruce Perens campaign to become a board member. Having had a long history myself in Free and Open Source Software, the recent activity bears reflection and begs the question “What is the purpose of the Open Source Initiative?” Let’s take a look at the definition of Initiative (noun):

  1. an introductory act or step; leading action: to take the initiative in making friends.
  2. readiness and ability in initiating action; enterprise: to lack initiative.

When I think of the OSI, I think of an organization that started 10 years ago to help define a market around Open Source. That market is now booming, so what is their current “Initiative”? The protection of the term “Open Source”? This is contradictory in that to protect it, they chose echo-chamber myopia as their methodology.

Read the entire post here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Scientology and Apple?

I take back every bad thing I ever said about Dan Lyons. As reported in Michael Cote's tweet from Lyons' EclipseCon keynote:

"If the church of scientology chose to go into the electronics industry, you know, they'd be Apple."

Frankly, I didn't know he had it in him. And then Lyons followed that up with this sidebar on a slide:

"Apple PR is like a Russian prison guard with a rifle on the ramparts."

Wow, I'm sad to have missed it! I never thought I'd be a kindred spirit with the Fake Steve.

Edit: Ok, that's a tad hyperbolic. Lyons has said some monumentally stupid things in the past. But I'm with him this time.

Getting Ready for OSBC - March 25 - 26

I was quite startled to learn yesterday that next week is OSBC. Apparently, I'm the only person crazy enough to go up against Mark Shuttleworth, John Roberts and Marten Mickos. I am moderating a panel titled The Community Imperative: Building and Leveraging Community into IT at 10:30am on Tuesday, March 25. For the remainder of this week, I'll report on who's on the panel, what they've been doing in the world of Open Source, and why you should care.

I'm really looking forward to this, as I've always been a fan of OSBC. It will be fun. If you're going to OSBC and have already seen Mickos, Roberts and Shuttleworth speak multiple times, then this is the panel for you!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Good Moves by the OSI

I was heartened to read this writeup on CAOS and the canonical blog post by Simon Phipps. I have thought for some time that the way the OSI (and by extension, the OSD) is set up does not meet the needs of the current software landscape. If you look at Creative Commons, they explicitly recognize different use cases and different licensing terms based on use case. I never understood why the OSI insisted on a one-size-fits-all strategy that didn't recognize the different goals of some "open" technologies that did not meet the criteria of the OSD. While they always claimed to be business-friendly and not about ideology, their inflexibility seemed to indicate otherwise and resulted in some not-so-friendly encounters with companies who published software under

Now it seems that Simon Phipps may be attempting to move the organization into a more nuanced, flexible direction. I can only applaud this line of thinking as it's long overdue. He suggests renaming the OSD to "Open Source Copyright Definition" and creating the entirely new "Open Source Patent Definition" and "Open Source Trademark Definition." This is a welcome change. It's not exactly the Creative Commons model, but I look at it as the first step to recognizing that not all open definitions are the same - and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Dear Dan Lyons: Open Source was Never 'Counter Culture'

Day 10,274 of misunderstood musings on Open Source. Dan Lyons talks about Open Source being in "an identity crisis" likening it to some punk band from the 70's that's now playing stadiums and losing touch with its original ethos. This is wrong on many, many levels.

First off, Open Source was never counter culture. This has been a difficult lesson for many to learn, due to the casual conflation of Open Source with Free Software and the FSF. One could argue that there is a significant set of Open Source developers and users who believe very strongly in things like information rights, code reciprocity, and the like (I count myself in this group). But the real impetus behind the Open Source ecosystem has been decades-old economic trends which I outlined in this article.

However, I do have to give Dan Lyons credit for this bit when discussing Sun's acquisition of MySQL:

"It's a great publicity stunt, but how will giving away products Sun already owns, and spending $1 billion to acquire another free product, save Sun? Pixie dust would have to be at work here. It reminds me of a sketch from South Park where gnomes steal underpants as part of a three-phase business plan..."

For whatever reason, Sun has spent a great deal of time commoditizing both hardware and software. One wonders if they're actually trying to back themselves into the services corner, because they seem to be headed in that direction.

So score one for the Fake Steve.

The GPL as IP Protection Tool

Via 451 CAOS Theory, just learned that the Software Freedom Law Center settled its GPL infringement suit with Verizon. I’ll leave the details of the case as an exercise for the reader, but it basically involves a company not adhering to the terms of the GPL.

As Jay Lyman of The 451 Group notes, this result is hardly a surprise:

…the GPL is not some exotic, first-of-its kind license, document or legal doctrine. Actually, it is based largely on U.S. copyright law, particularly in the case of GPLv2, which is the BusyBox license. It amazes me that some people think the GPL will be refuted, defeated or ‘thrown out of court.’ That would mean ‘throwing out’ U.S. copyright law, and I don’t see that happening, ever.

It amazes me how much misunderstanding of the GPL still exists. No, the GPL does not cede your intellectual property to the public domain - as a matter of fact, it does a pretty good job of protecting it. In fact, the GPL is a pretty good compromise between granting rights to all parties and protecting IP. This case is another demonstration of that. Verizon knew they couldn’t win, so they settled. Makes sense to me.

There’s a reason we chose the GPL v2 when releasing Hyperic HQ under an Open Source license. As Eben Moglen himself has been known to say, It’s Good Not To Be Your Competitor’s Free Lunch.

Dirk Riehle: Total Growth of Open Source

Via Dana Blankenhorn's blog, I came across an excellent article, "The Total Growth of Open Source" from Amit Deshpande and Dirk Riehle from SAP Research. In it, they look at over 5,000 active and popular Open Source projects and concluded

"...that the total amount of source code as well as the total number of open source projects is growing at an exponential rate. Previous research showed linear and quadratic growth in lines of source code of individual open source projects. Our work shows that open source is expanding into new domains and applications at an exponential rate."

It's one thing to read that. It's quite another to actually see it in action (see graph above tracking lines of source code over time).

This is pretty heady stuff. One of my assumptions has been that Open Source, being a child of the internet, directly benefited from the sheer numbers of people who understood more about software development. My hypothesis was that, as more knowledge was distributed online, the growth in Open Source development would continue. The evidence would seem to corroborate that assumption.

Also interesting was the methodology of the study. As online tools grow ever deeper, the data at Riehle's disposal is richer than ever. In fact, they pulled their data from, using their data pulls from source code repositories to measure the additions and subtractions for Open Source projects. They used a measure of the number of incoming links to project home pages to determine the top projects to measure, and then tracked their growth over time.

One thing I would have liked to see and didn't - at least, not that I can tell - is how much of the growth was "organic" and how much was due to more projects springing up. It's great to know the total number of lines of code and the total number of projects. What we don't know is which of these projects are chiefly responsible for the growth, or what the average "health" rating is for each project. Even better still would be to divy up the projects into general categories based on growth in lines of code: would that give an accurate representation of a project's overall "health"?

Back in 2001, when it seemed that our world was imploding, I recall some folks wondering aloud whether Open Source contributions would stop. Judging from this study, at least, it seems pretty clear that the .com implosion had little impact on Open Source growth, if any at all.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Yahoo's Zawodny: We're Open, Too!

I've met Jeremy Zawodny, although I don't know him. From what I have gathered, he and a bunch of people at Yahoo are doing some great work on the Open Source side of the house. In a blog post, Jeremy talks about how Yahoo! has "been on the openness road for a long, long time." The focus of his post was in response to an absurd Mary Jo Foley post about Yahoo's openness being a poison pill for MSFT. Matt Asay also picked up on this and gives Yahoo well-deserved kudos for their efforts. But I couldn't help but notice this little nugget from Jeremy:

Some times it hasn't been as visible as others, but believe me, the trend is quite clear when you look at all the data.

Er, not as visible as what others? Well, we know the answer to that one. You would think that with this admission that Yahoo's efforts lack the same visibility as Google, that the higher-ups might, you know, take notice and learn from the success of others. I know Jeremy has promised more openness, and I look forward to it, but something tells me that they lack Google's knack for maximizing the exposure of their Open Source contributions. It's one thing to make real Open Source contributions and give your community value. It's quite another to make those contributions *and* get real value in return. When it comes to reaping benefits from Open Source efforts, no one comes close to Google.

But Yahoo's not the only one who fails to understand this. I continue to be amazed at those companies who insist on repeating mistakes from the past and refuse to learn from successes and failures. Google has already shown how a major technology company can use Open Source to its advantage. "Tier 1" tech companies should be lambasted by shareholders for not following a winning example.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Toward a $0 Cost Future?

By now, you've no doubt heard of Chris Anderson, Wired's Editor, and his recent article, Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business. If you haven't, you should read it - it's an interesting compendium of how technology is changing the value of things. However, as was the case with 'The Long Tail', it's a bit light on analysis and a bit heavy on broad proclamations that don't stand up to further critique. However, all told, reading the article in a commercial open source context can be rather revealing.

I'll summarize some of the article's tasty bits: what Chris calls "cross-product subsidies" are becoming more and more prevalent as technology allows companies greater flexibility than ever to create free complements to what they actually sell. This creation of more and more free complements means there are more and more free things to consume, and this will continue. Thus, everything will be free! Or not... This is a nice, elegant idea, but the article tends to deviate from this elegant description into a hodgepodge of pseudo-economics and other seemingly random bits of information that may or may not prove the author's point.

But before I get into that, a word about how the media is treating this article. You would think, based on the fawning reports in the mainstream press, that Anderson had somehow written some groundbreaking thesis on economics. He hasn't. And in fact, he's far from the first to describe this in the popular media. As I was reminded by a friend earlier today, Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software fame wrote a brilliant, concise article on the same subject way back in 2002, a whole 6 years ago. Considering that the half-life of news in the Internet era is measured in days, if not hours, I suppose our hardworking media members can be forgiven for not realizing they were scooped by about a century in Internet years. Once upon a time, it was the job of the media to suss out fact from fiction and empirical facts from parlor tricks. To, you know, critically analyze something.

As someone who also likes to dabble in economics and technology, Anderson's vision of the free(r) future is tantalizing. However, the primary failing of his article is the lack of any explanation of *why* this is happening. He starts with the premise that technology gets cheaper, particularly Internet-driven technology, and then tells us that this cheaper technology gives companies greater flexibility to give away products and services. But there's something missing here - a big something, fundamental to the whole article. Why does "anything that touches digital networks" quickly feel "the effect of falling costs?" He never bothers to explain. Perhaps he doesn't think it's interesting.

As I mentioned, the basic points are stated well, and I find them interesting. The bit about disruption of markets due to the increasing number of free things is right on the money. But again, this point has been made several times when describing the function of the internet. It's also a point used to often describe how companies can make money off of Open Source software - give away something to drive other lines of revenue. But mostly, my issue with the article is that it pretends to be something its not - it could have stated the point in less than two pages, but it trudges on through a narcoleptic seven pages in a misguided attempt to appear to have found cutting-edge answers to a perplexing problem. Oh well, at least with all the media coverage, maybe we won't have to deal so much with annoying questions about how people are going to get paid for producing free things. I won't hold my breath.

I probably would have never written this without all the media coverage given to the article, but I found all the hubbub incomprehensible. It appears Anderson has an upcoming book about free stuff. I'm sure it will be an interesting read. I, too, am working on a book on this subject. Except, in my case, I'm going to publish it as a work-in-progress wiki book and collect money via adwords (thank you, Google!). *That's* how you do it.

The Google Open Source Program Office - A Model to Emulate?

At a recent SDForum event, I was doing my usual schtick about communities, when I happened to mention one of my recent thoughts: that Google's Open Source Program Office kicks major ass. I can think of no other company that has merged marketing, PR, real code, real community events, and real *stuff* that geeks find enthralling as cohesively as Google. It seems to me, as an outsider, to be an almost perfect blend of how you develop community and derive real value from it. And as I always like to point out - in order to do that, you must first give your community real value. Google seems particularly good at both giving and getting value. Better, in fact, than anyone else.

And yet, you would have thought that the audience were a collection of cows staring at a newly-installed gate. Crickets chirped. And then I heard some push-back:

They do it for recruiting!

Well, yes, this is true. But then, I didn't say they were altruistic, but rather that they knew what they were doing with respect to community development. They invest in communities, many of them related to Open Source, and this devotion to community helps them tremendously. It helps them when they launch a new set of services, because the communities they target will no doubt be the early adopters. It helps when Google launches a new platform, such as Android, because their communities will be the source of a great number of hackers who will enjoy bending Android to their will.

As is often the case, whenever I say something that meets with any sort of vehement disagreement, I obsess over why my view differs so greatly from those whose opinions I normally agree with. So, expect to see more posts as I dive more deeply into this issue. It also helps that this happens to coincide with the latest installment of the Google Summer of Code.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Thoughts on Open Source Users and Freedom

I posted this over at The subject matter is about Linux, specifically, but really it could apply to any Open Source software user. Re-posting below:

Over at the TuxToday blog, there’s a post about Linux users not caring about freedom - because they’d rather just use Adobe’s Flash plugin in lieu of Free Software like Gnash. Or they think Richard Stallman and the FSF are morons who are hurting the Open Source movement.

I’m torn by this argument, because I can see both sides of this. On one hand, it is true that fewer Linux and FLOSS users today care about the “free” in Free Software, and I lament this occurrence. On the other hand, however, I would be remiss not to point out that, at times, the FSF and Richard Stallman can be their own worst enemies. Note, however, that I am in full agreement with the stated goals of the FSF.

Also, we must understand why this phenomenon is taking place. I think a big part of it is that simply Free Software has expanded beyond the traditional techno-libertarian space it once occupied. And furthermore - and this is why groups like even exist at the moment - we have done a very poor job of explaining to people why they should care. If you look beyond the techno elite, very few people understand the underlying problems of the lack of protected freedoms in the digital space.

This is why is dedicated to the idea that everyone deserves the protected right to access what we own, on our terms. Because identifying the problem in that language makes it apparent to the layman what is wrong, ie. we *don’t* currently have the protected right to access what we own. And in fact, with laws like the DMCA, not only do we not have that right, but we can run afoul of the law simply by acting on the supposition that we have that right.

We believe that the secret to these issues lies in addressing them in a language that everyone can understand. This is about the right to education, our mandate as human beings to wipe out the digital divide and ensure tech access for everyone, and the simple fact that the prominence of technology in 2008 raises information rights to the level of human rights. Note the term I chose there: information rights. Not “digital rights”. “Digital rights” seems to be a term reserved for the technorati, something that everyday people need not care about. “Information rights” - ok, that’s a term more people can identify with.

So, if we want things to change, we’re going to have to get organized and make an effort to speak “right down to earth, in a language that everybody can understand.” At, we’re working on political efforts to make sure that both politicians and the non-techie audience can understand why we care.

Won’t you consider joining