When open source isn't (open enough)

It's very possible to be completely open-source without being completely open, but this may fade as more companies learn to use open source effectively.

Some open-source software may not be open enough. While "open source" refers to software's underlying license and its adherence to the Open Source Definition, there are numerous examples of open-source projects that offer an open license but a relatively closed development process.

But is it open enough? Open Source Initiative
It's been called "fauxpen source" and worse, but we may have to get used to it. It seems to be the new normal in open-source development. Only open source foundations like Eclipse, Apache Software Foundation, and Mozilla appear to be able to escape it completely.

Java is one example people cite of "fauxpen-ness." SAP CTO Vishal Sikka on Monday called for a more open process for Java development, arguing that Sun too tightly controls Java's development. It's a complaint that has plagued the Java community for years.

Not that Java is alone. While Google gets plaudits for its open-source investments, some are quick to allege that Google maintains a closed Android community. The same sort of complaints have arisen over Google's management of Chrome and Chrome OS.

Even Red Hat, the quintessential open-source company, is primarily known for what it distributes, not what it develops. Red Hat, of course, works alongside IBM and other corporate and unaffiliated developers to write the Linux kernel, and scrupulously releases its software under open-source licenses.

But when it comes to development of its Red Hat Enterprise Linux distribution or development of its JBoss middleware or other technologies (e.g., KVM), good luck finding many significant external contributors.

MySQL? It's largely the same. The company (now Sun Microsystems) does virtually all of its own development, which is true of every commercial open-source company of which I'm aware. This is one reason Richard Stallman can unblushingly worry about MySQL's openness despite the fact that it uses his preferred GPL license.

Open source, but not necessarily open process.

There are very good reasons that Google, Red Hat, MySQL, and others keep a tight grip on their open-source development efforts. They are responsible--fiscally and legally--to their customers, and have to be able to guarantee quality and security. Understandably, they exercise some control to ensure the products they ship protect the integrity of their brands.

But such corporate open source indicates a real divide between "open source" as a license and "open source" as a wholly transparent way of developing and distributing software. The former is now common and relatively easy. The latter, quite simply, is not.

The companies that seem to do it best are those that don't rely on direct monetization of open-source software. In other words, if you aren't selling open source, it's easier to be open. Doc Searls captures this brilliantly by arguing "you make money because of [open source], not with it."

Examples abound. IBM is a good example. So is Google, though I agree with its critics that it can do better. Facebook, Oracle, and others also provide examples.

In the future, I think we'll see this "fauxpen-ness" fade as companies clearly separate their open-source efforts from their revenue models. Open source can provide a platform for monetization, but it isn't the best way to actually generate cash. Not for most companies, anyway.

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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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