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August 08 2011

Open minds and open source community

The last week of July was OSCON. Now that I’ve had a week off to think about all the amazing conversations I overheard and took part in, I want to share some of the ideas that I was hearing.

I took Steve Yegge’s call to “work on important things” to heart in last week in Portland. I sought out hard conversations with the collection of open source users, developers and luminaries that attended OSCON. I started most of my hallway track sessions asking and thinking very broadly about our tag line, "from disruption to default."

Growing the community

If open source is now the default, if the audience is now much broader, then are we talking enough about the primary audience for open source tools, projects and products? Now our constituency is not all developer peers. We must challenge the idea that if someone really wants to use a piece of software, he or she will be willing to slog through half-written documentation, the actual code base and an unkind user interface.

Gabe Zichermann made a fantastic point in his keynote about the introduction of new players to a game: In the first screens of a game, there is no way to do the wrong thing. In fact, there is only one thing to do, which is the first step in learning how to interface with that product. Likewise, lowering the barrier to entry is paramount to continuing to promote open source as a culture and a global good.

There was a time in open source when, if you used a product, you also were a contributor to the code. Now, we are experiencing a redefinition of contributor and community member. Users who make good bug reports are fantastic contributors, though they may not code. Designers who rework the user experience for broader appeal are also important contributors. An entire culture based on finding people to relate to as outcasts is now learning to deal with popularity. The label "geek" is no longer a pejorative, but instead is becoming a badge of honor.

These adolescent growing pains are causing tension within the greater open source community. Change is happening: ‘Open’ has gone from elitist anti-crowd to global buzzword, experiencing dramatic growth and shifts in business models. Hackers aren’t doing this simply for love but often looking for corporate sponsorship. There are more subtle changes, too, like the redefinition of ‘community’ to include not only developers but also end users, corporate sponsors, people of color and women, designers and UX engineers.

Boy, it's hard to be cool. The early projects which had success in broadening the reach of a project or in securing corporate sponsorship, funding or a business model were decried as sellouts. Think RedHat, circa 2002. Who would ever pay for Linux support?

In more recent times, Jono Bacon has navigated that line well. He is not only the community face of Ubuntu and Canonical, but an actual rock star. He gave a keynote at OSCON last week about the future of communities. Then, in an incredibly authentic blog post, Jono reflected on his presentation and noted what he learned. Transparency and openness to alternate perspectives are what allow him to rally an eclectic community of developers, users, designers, and the curious who in turn promote and host events to add a three dimensional component for the community around Ubuntu.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

Save 20% on registration with the code AN11RAD

Using data and open source better

In some quiet time at OSCON, Dave Eaves and Edd Dumbill had a fantastic conversation about making use of data to better understand the ebb and flow of an open source community’s engagement.

Dave has been working with Mozilla to seek out and understand what is quantitatively happening in the community to inform constant improvement. Ask “why are bugs in this section of the code taking twice as long to be reviewed?” Ask “who has contributed consistently over the last 18 months, but not in the last 30 days?” Take the information, both qualitative and quantitative, and then use it to continue to improve our communities.

In another example, when OpenStack was announced on the OSCON keynote stage last year, it gave rise to conversations with the thesis that there are "real open source" projects (and, presumably, "faux open source" projects). Under scrutiny were corporate sponsorships and business models which have funded a proliferation of newer open source projects like Ubuntu or Hadoop. Many argue that companies still don't know how to take a product and "open source it."

The fact that “open source” is a verb suggests we have made it, but the community's limited engagement with OpenStack means there's still a long way to go. At Nebula’s launch keynote, Chris Kemp asked who had worked with OpenStack; the response was anemic. There is hope. OpenStack has increased from a dozen contributors (primarily funded by Rackspace) to more than 250 in the current release and is seeking to engage more independent developers as well. (There are currently 1200 developers in the development tree.)

What does open mean?

Some arguments for open source are about transparency or safety. The more eyes see code, the more refined it becomes, and the more security exploits are found before impacting an end user. In her keynote at OSCON, Karen Sandler answered how open source will benefit consumers of medical devices. A corporate sponsor, however will be considering the talent pool of theoretically unlimited volunteer workers. The dogmatic among us want "free-libre" for the independence from corporate overlords.

I believe open is a mindset: accepting and respecting the views of others and encouraging more perspectives in our communities. Not every company will have goals or methods that align with the open source philosophy. There are many companies which will. The first step to hacking is to frame the problem and understand the biases. We have the opportunity here to share experience and find where we can work together. Instead of conversations about if a corporate sponsored project is really open, why not welcome the corporate sponsors to the table and work to find where our interests align. Nurture those ideas, then start discussing the harder edge cases.

We lack common motivations for a set of complicated goals loosely collected and anointed “open source." When we address this underlying problem, the other symptoms we’ve been treating will ease. There is a culture behind the idea of open source. To move that vision forward, there will have to be more public successes.

Jim Zemlin suggested in his keynote that we need to brand the vision behind open source, much like "Made in the USA" or "Fair Trade." This means working with and embracing our old rivals and finding where our interests align. In the least marketing-y keynote I've ever seen from Microsoft, Gianugo Rabellino spoke of a place for both open and closed source products and advocates embracing their interoperability. While I don't see Microsoft being a corporate sponsor for Linux, they are kernel contributors. Alignment of interests give rise to opportunities where everyone benefits. We will see more in the future.

Have we succeeded in disrupting? Yes. Is open source the default? In some places. How do we do it again? We embrace the change we birthed and work to evolve and grow this adolescent into a robust, healthy and curious philosophy.

October 22 2010

The upside of open

Web 2.0 Summit 2010In a previous interview here at Radar, author and Web 2.0 Summit speaker Lisa Gansky (@instigating) discussed both the defining characteristics and the companies related to "The Mesh." Mesh organizations use data, networks, and offers of shared goods and services -- i.e. things people can access without owning them -- to actively engage with customers. ZipCar is "meshy," as are Netflix, Amazon Web Services and others.

There's a number of concepts that plug into The Mesh; continuous deployment, lean startups, open web, and the like. I got in touch with Gansky to get her take on some of these broader/adjacent ideas. Our interview follows.

What's the connection between The Mesh and things like continuous deployment, lean startups and perpetual betas? Is there a connection?

Lisa GanskyLisa Gansky: Absolutely. An organization that is capable of continuous deployment, for example, understands that we operate in an always-on, continuous touch environment. Frequent updates of the deployed offerings -- especially when combined with fresh, transparent and authentic communication -- clearly show where the product is in its evolution, including the holes.

Likewise, lean startups can use teams, tools, platforms and partnerships that are organized around convenient access to goods and services, rather than traditional ownership-based models. This orientation and capability allow many early-stage companies to get into the market, grab the attention of early customers and investors and grow by learning ahead of competitors.

As for perpetual betas, they have certainly become a core aspect of web-based services. Companies that put the "beta" stamp on an offering provide "air cover" for testing raw ideas, the user experience, brand positioning and specific offers. Beta has become code for: "Don't be impatient with us. We're inviting you into our not-ready-for-prime-time attempts and we want your feedback."

Betas are two-way. They invite high levels of engagement and provide a cloak of cover as the product is still in the kitchen. Trials, testing and tweaking are all essential elements of these perpetual betas. Interestingly, some companies have never removed the "beta" from their products. The beta stamp seems to to create a level of freedom for the team, and wonder for the user community.

The theme of Web 2.0 Summit 2010 is "points of control." Does sharing run counter to points of control? Or, does a point of control form when a sharing community gains critical mass?

LG: I think it means both. The differential of power in a world of sharing will become increasingly interesting to watch and important to engage with. Sharing -- or at least the illusion of sharing -- benefits all the parties as a new language and standards are formed, and expectations are being developed.

Once a particular person, company or architecture has established a clear lead, then sharing, I believe, has been limited between the newly established point of control and others vying for position and leverage. As we see social networks become more sophisticated and action-oriented, I'll be curious to see if the critical mass shifts too quickly from one point of control to another.

Will Google's dominance wane as Twitter, Facebook, Quora and other companies increasingly build social mass, brand equity and the capacity to activate large communities? It appears that as social networks grow in size and sophistication, the time it takes to launch and get traction behind a campaign, brand or technology may be shrinking. Will that erode the power of today's clear "points of control" in short order? Or will they need to further enhance peer-to-peer to maintain community power?

Does The Mesh require an open web?

LG: The Mesh thrives in an open anything. The sharing of data, networks, tools and teams isn't completely dependent on the web, but certainly the open web reduces the friction of sharing. It allows communities, value chains and ecosystems that are more responsive to opportunities and challenges to form and reform. They are, in many ways, more naturally formed and dissolved in an open environment.

Lisa Gansky will examine sharing's influence on business at the Web 2.0 Summit, being held November 15-17 in San Francisco. Request an invitation.

Will the debate about open systems versus closed systems continue forever because one will ascend and the other will be used to knock it down?

LG: Let's hope not. My view is that the closed systems are an outgrowth of last century's premise that there is a finite amount of know-how and talent, so that isolating the intellectual property (IP) and owning it will create more value for a company and its shareholders. While it is hard to dispute that if you own an essential piece of technology, you have power, I believe that business models based on collecting royalties solely from licensing IP are becoming less important and less trusted. The necessity to build partnerships, ecosystems and systems to interchange assets (hard and soft), means that closed systems are at a disadvantage. One cannot predict from the beginning of the business which partners will be necessary or compelling. Given that, responsiveness, transparency and time-to-market favor the open model.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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