Is open source losing its soul?

Open-source developers who put ideology before salary threaten to undermine the success of the movement.

Early free-software advocates like Richard Stallman raged against the copyright-toting software capitalists, yearning for a brighter day of peace, love, and (GNU) Linux. In 1998, afraid that this quasi-hippie ideal might scare away the business world from embracing free software, Eric Raymond and a few others came up with the term "open source," broadening the tent well beyond free-software radicals.

Today that tent is broad enough to include everyone from Stallman (still fighting the same fight he always has) to Microsoft, with the poignancy of the term "open source" coming to lose some of its fire, even as the power and breadth of its code base increases dramatically.

Has open source come to include so much that it's somewhat meaningless? If so, should we return to the free-software roots that defined its infancy?

Personally, I think the bigger the tent, the better it is for open source. Even a tent that includes a wide array of open-source leeches, an issue taken up by Bill Snyder in InfoWorld.

I like the big tent (and even, increasingly, the "leeches") because the broadening is largely driven by the same motivation: finding ways to feed one's family by writing more open-source software.

That, after all, is really the reason for the term "open source" in the first place: make it more relevant so more people could create sustainable businesses around it. Indeed, as Jack and Suzy Welch recently opined in Businessweek, the hallmark of a great company is how much value it drives to its employees and shareholders:

A company's foremost responsibility is to do well. That may sound politically incorrect, but the reason is inexorable. Winning companies create jobs, pay taxes, and strengthen the economy. Winning companies, in other words, enable social responsibility, not the other way around. And so, right now--as always--companies should be putting profitability first. It's the necessity that makes every other necessity possible.

Red Hat is nice when it writes open-source software. Red Hat is great when it employs thousands of people to do that, people who can care for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Doing good by doing well. This is the principle that drives the open-source start-ups that I know, from MindTouch to Cloudera to Compiere, but it also drives the "proprietary" companies like IBM and Oracle that contribute a great deal of code to open source while also ensuring they pursue business strategies that enable them to be financially competitive.

It's fine for free-software purists to insist that the world abandon all proprietary designs, but until they demonstrate that more money can be made in this way and, hence, more total social good can be achieved, then their arguments rightly ring hollow.

I've been in that camp. I urged the world to "burn the boats." I hold by that counsel, as it was a direction to look forward to new licensing and business models, rather than fixate on the past, largely as Google has now done with its Wave product .

But if you torch your "boat" into the ground without any idea as to how to get your business to $100 million in sales, you're rightly going to get singed (or worse) with your business. Open-source developers have a responsibility to do well so that more open-source software can afford to be written. At present, this may require keeping some bits proprietary. Hopefully in the future it won't.

Until that blissful day, it is foolish to hold to a purist software development philosophy if it minimizes your ability to feed your family and to be widely relevant to the industry.


Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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