Just what value does "community" provide, anyway?

For open-source companies to thrive, they need to enable system integrators and other members of these corporate communities to thrive. Corporate open-source communities can encourage contributions from their customers and from these corporations in an o

Pierre suggests that dual-licensing hurts community. Jonathan Schwartz boasts that Java has the world's largest community. MySQL and Sun retreat (a little) from plans to offer closed extensions to the MySQL database because the community gods get angry.

What, exactly, is this "community?" Who gave it so much power? And why do we care about it?

As we'll be discussing on Monday at Sun's Community One conference (note the name?), companies are judged as good or bad based on the strength of their communities. But what is a company's community? In one breath we assume community relates to the number of outside developers that contribute to a project. In the other breath (as Schwartz does in the link above) we suggest that community is all about the gross number of users of a project.

Which is it? Does it matter?

First of all, let's get one thing straight: Community, in the classic sense (i.e., those that contribute to a project through code), doesn't pay the bills. Community may contribute code, but almost by definition this is a group with more time and expertise than money. As Fabrizio at Funambol is fond of saying, you shouldn't try to upsell your community. Be grateful that they're there and that they give to you. Don't expect them to give cash.

Now, if we assume that not only does community not pay the bills but also generally doesn't contribute any good, either, we're left with a very serious (but never asked) question:

Does community really matter all that much?

"Yes!" we hasted to cry, but I'm not convinced as to the reason. I, myself, have suggested that a company without community is like an emperor without clothes. But while that makes for a good sound bite, I'm not sure it's accurate. At least, not in a deep, meaningful way.

Can companies sit at the center of a disinterested, organic open-source, code-contributing community? I don't think so. At least, I've yet to see it work. Eclipse, Mozilla, and other non-profits are good at corralling community contributions, including from members of corporations. But that's because they're not personally interested in outselling their partners in the community.

The one truly thriving corporate community is, I hate to say it, Microsoft. Some suggest that Microsoft dominates its community, and this is certainly true. But Microsoft also makes it possible for many to make good money in its ecosystem.

For open-source companies to thrive, they need to enable system integrators and other members of these corporate communities to thrive. Corporate open-source communities can encourage contributions from their customers and from these corporations in an open-source ecosystem. They will likely not get much in the way of "community" contributions in the old sense.

Is this a bad thing? Probably not. But it means that open-source companies must look to the strength of partners in their community as much as they look to their own strength.

Agree? Disagree?

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Tech Culture
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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