OSI and the value in holding firm

The role of the OSI may well be to do nothing, what with all the emphasis on doing "something," and much of it bad for open source.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

I was reading The Economist on my flight home from London today, and came across this paragraph in an article that resonated with me, because it reminds me of the various non-profit "lobbies" within the open source software movement.

Too many Brussels think-tanks accept large chunks of their funding from EU institutions and national governments. Others depend on big corporate sponsors, so that the lines between research and lobbying becomes queasily blurred....Nobody seems able to change the default formula for Brussels policy seminars: good coffee and croissants, dull speeches and a brief exchange of conventional wisdom. The painful comparison is with Washington, DC, where the best think-tanks refuse public money, compete to set the agenda with provocative ideas, and enjoy extraordinary access to administration and Congress alike. (June 9, 2007. 45)
Open source software has the OSI, the Free Software Foundation, the Software Freedom Law Center, he Linux Foundation, various conferences (OSCON, OSBC, LinuxWorld, etc.), and various other overtly open source or friendly-to-open source organizations. How effective they are in promoting open source is, to my mind, directly proportionate to their independence.

I thought it was a net negative to see the Free Standards Group merge with OSDL. FSG was a "bottoms-up" organization, despite its corporate funding. OSDL was never more than an attempt to rein in Red Hat. I think very highly of Jim Zemlin, and think he bleeds more FSG (his original home) than OSDL, and believe he can do much good. But he has his work cut out for him to ensure the community's voice is heard in the Linux Foundation.

On the other side of the scale we have the OSI, which has always been more about community than corporate interests (despite, ironically enough, having been formed, in part, to soften the strident tones of the free software movement and make free/open source palatable to business). I've heard a fair amount of grumbling over the past year about the OSI:

  • Out of touch
  • Unelected
  • Unrepresentative
  • Not progressive enough
  • Harder to work with than the FSF [A backhanded compliment, to my mind ;-) ]
  • Etc.
Some of these critiques are accurate and should likely be remedied. But the very intransigence that grates against the more corporate interests in open source is precisely why I feel the OSI should remain roughly as it is. I'm in favor of finding some way to broaden membership, or somehow make the OSI more permeable to the wider interests involved in open source. Accountability is good in all things.

But not in ways that make the OSI beholden to the very interests that would prefer to dilute open source, to settle on lowest-common denominator open source to the narrow benefit of a few, and to the wider detriment of everyone else. When the OSI stood firm on attribution my company, Alfresco, chafed at the bit just like many others. But we capitulated (and went GPL, much to my happiness), and are emphatically, significantly the better for it. Business is booming, giving away this free stuff. Customers are happy. Partners are happy. And our employees are happy.

We need robust, vigorous debate in open source. That's what makes things interesting, and it's what makes for progress (in a Hegelian sort of way). Open source is important because it's disruptive. Disruption finds new ways to serve customers (and, importantly, to make money in that pursuit). We need the OSI to stand firm - to be that thorn in our sides that won't turn Rhinoceros. (Ionescan for "Won't give in.)

Is there a role for more corporate organizations? Absolutely. I believe the Linux Foundation, in particular, has an important role to play in serving as an instructional tool for its members as they seek to understand and engage the open source development community. It can help to align corporate interests around important things like standards around the Linux kernel and other important open source projects (Xen, for example).

It will fail to the extent it serves to coddle vendors in antiquated business models or suggests that these business models can be retrofitted onto open source. Open source requires a new way of thinking and of doing software. Here's to the organizations that will help us debate and discuss our way to this better form of creating customer value.

Note: I am an OSI board member.