The enemy of my enemy is...not really my friend (?!?)

The open-source movement is a massive experiment, one that is nowhere near being completed. Along the way, we need to be more civil, more open, and more self-critical rather than outwardly critical.

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

Zack Urlocker picks up on my growing frustration with the self-appointed "community" police.

These are the people who hound companies and developers into a slavish devotion to One True Way of participating in open source, a way that may not bring the financial return necessary to fuel the next generation of open-source development. I'm sympathetic to this mindset because I've shared it. But of late I've grown weary of the monoculture, one seemingly inimical to money.

Infoworld's Bill Snyder picks up on the meme and runs with it:

...[F]or too many members of the open source community money is, well, icky. I pick that word deliberately, because the snarky elitists who want to keep open source pure -- and poor -- remind me of children.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Bill's nomenclature, the gist of his argument is dead-on: By prefabricating all the possible business models for open source, the "community" guardians may well be shackling open source's potential. They are like the Henry Fords of open-source choice: You can have any open-source business model that you want, so long as it's support.

There's got to be a better way.

To be frank, I don't know what that "way" is at present. But that's the point. No one does. This is why Marten Mickos speaks of the need to experiment with MySQL's model. Even Red Hat, which has clearly found an incredible way to monetize open-source adoption, ran into roadblocks when it tried to apply its RHEL/Fedora model to JBoss. The experiment seems to be going better now, but it took some serious pushing and shoving to get it to work.

As we "experiment" toward optimal open-source models, we should expect a lot of self-contradiction along the way. That's what great businesses do: They change when they find a better way, or when they think there might be a better way. In the words of my favorite Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his classic "Self Reliance" speech:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

The future of open source will be found in the clash of a boiling dialectic, not in mute acceptance of tired truisms by the herd. If we've already settled on the "best way" to do open source, once and for all, then I would submit we are severely limiting our possibilities, because I don't think we've even come close to our full potential.

Open source doesn't grow on trees. If you've noticed, it grows on corporations, whether the project is Linux, Apache, MySQL, SugarCRM, Openbravo, Loopfuse, or...you name it.

Yes, any developer can start a project in open source. That's the promise. But if you look around at the world's successful projects, you'll find one heck of a lot of money behind them. Communities, it turns out, are increasingly fueled by cash. Figuring out how to include that cash without ruining community is the biggest software question of the coming decade.

Along the way, Zack suggests that "The best you can do is operate transparently." I think there's a lot of truth to this. I can't please everyone. Neither can you. Doing so, in fact, is a recipe for failure.

As we experiment, let's try to be civil. I haven't always been the best at this, and make a commitment to doing so going forward. It's amazing how much easier it is for me to be such without the hard-edged ideology stifling creativity. I imagine the same is true for you.