Inside the open-source development model

What compels some people to give their work away? Harvard Business School professor Siobhan O'Mahony discusses her research into foundations formed around three open-source software projects: Debian, GNOME and Apache.

6 min read
Programmers contribute to free software and open-source projects for many reasons--some for the fun of it, some to improve their skills and others for a paycheck.

Many people have wondered why these people give their work away. The truth is that many projects have become incorporated in order to protect themselves from individual liability. Since the founding of the Free Software Foundation in 1985, a number of new nonprofit foundations have formed, often around specific technologies, to serve the interests of programmers.

Harvard Business School professor Siobhan O'Mahony discusses her research on foundations formed around three projects: Debian, a complete non-commercial distribution of Linux; the GNU Object Model Environment (GNOME), which is a graphical user interface for Linux-based operating systems; and Apache, a public domain open source Web server.

Q: Could you explain why the emergence of nonprofit foundations in the hacker culture appears to be a contradiction in terms?
A: The hacker culture prizes autonomy and self-determination. Eric Raymond defines hackers as those who love programming for the sake of doing it, for the sake of obsessively solving a problem. Thus, hackers who contribute to the open-source community are often intrinsically motivated.

It is important to realize, however, that hackers are a diverse group. I have interviewed hobbyists, students, academics, software professionals and government workers who identify themselves as hackers. It is not safe to generalize about all of the values that hackers share, but they tend to agree on at least one thing: Respect must be earned and cannot be derived from position.

Much of what is funny about Dilbert cartoons is the disgust that technical workers have for managers who do not have intimate knowledge of the content of their work. This emphasis on demonstration of capabilities is even more critical in the open-source community. One earns the respect of peers by demonstrating skills and making valuable contributions of code to a project.

Associated with these values is an embracement of informality and a distaste for "administrivia"--for this too can take away from the pure joy of programming. So I suppose what can be considered to be contradictory is that many community-managed open-source projects have incorporated and created nonprofit foundations with formal boards and designated roles and responsibilities.

Now, there is a wide range of foundations that are emerging. At one end of the continuum are nonprofit foundations that act as little more than legal shells to hold a project's assets and allow the project to collect donations. At the other end are nonprofit foundations that have elaborate committee structures, manage releases and even hire employees.

What were the greatest challenges faced by the three nonprofit foundations you studied?
There are three big challenges. One, which is common to all start-ups, is resources. Many foundations have been successful in garnering donations of hardware and equipment when needed but do not have vast reserves to support legal expenses, travel or conferences. However, since these foundations are primarily electronically constituted and manifested in the physical world only by a mailing address, their capital needs are minimal.

Second is the tension between embracing the informal work norms and ethos of the hacker style of programming and needing to be more predictable and coordinated in managing software releases. Projects that are more closely coupled with commercial firms have experienced direct pressure from firms to communicate better and to more formally plan what will be included in a release and when.

No community-managed software project wants to be "taken over" or co-opted by one firm.
Several projects that have created foundations are experimenting with this tension now: How much structure can we impose on volunteers? People are intimately aware that too much structure will disenfranchise the very people who make the most successful open-source projects possible.

Lastly, open-source software foundations have been thrilled to receive support from Fortune 500 firms in the software industry. This support is attenuated by the fact that no community-managed software project wants to be "taken over" or co-opted by one firm.

The biggest tension here is how to sustain pluralism. If open-source contributors only recognize each other based on individual merit, to the exclusion of monitoring where those people of merit are employed, then the pluralism necessary to maintain a community form could be threatened.

One of the most important roles foundations can play is to ensure that pluralism in the governance of these projects is sustained.

Will the nonprofit foundation be an organizational model that will define future software development?
I cannot see into the future, but I think the first experiment is in play. I see the Open Source Application Foundation (OSAF) as an example of the next wave. Mitch Kapor, a successful venture capitalist who founded Lotus Software, invested $5 million of his own money into building a personal information manager, Chandler. In his own words, "The whole idea of founding a company to develop new productivity software was a complete nonstarter. No sane VC (venture capitalist) would or should fund a venture to compete with the Microsoft monopoly."

The more fundamental question that firms and policy makers need to be thinking about is: Just what type of good is software?
Even though his project is in the early stages, more than 33,000 people downloaded the very first release in its first two weeks and OSAF has received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to further its work for educational environments.

Although I doubt that nonprofit foundations will define the future of software development, all evidence indicates that they will continue to play an important role. Keep in mind that the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which defines the protocols of the Internet, is a nonprofit professional society. What is different from professional nonprofits or nonprofits focused on charitable causes is that open-source foundations produce software that is resold by third parties on commercial markets.

Similar issues surface in the biotechnology world, where university and market conceptions of the life sciences can become intertwined. The more fundamental question that firms and policy makers need to be thinking about is: Just what type of good is software? The answer to this question may be shifting, just as economic and social life becomes dependent upon a common computing infrastructure.

When a successful entrepreneur with every possible advantage chooses to found a nonprofit instead of a firm--because that investment is more likely to lead to success--what can be inferred about the state of the software market?

Organizational theorists argue that nonprofit foundations are created to protect goods too valuable and socially desired to be left to the market--goods like education. If we are granting special tax privileges to organizations to produce software, we as a society are saying something about the nature of that good and the nature of the markets that create it.

What were the biggest surprises that you encountered in this project?
The biggest surprise to me was the level of involvement that firms engage in with community forms on software development and standard setting in general. That is, legal forms that are not government sponsored and are not formally constituted by a partnership, an alliance, or a consortia agreement.

It is interesting to watch how individuals with limited power and resources negotiate and collaborate with the largest of corporations. Community may not be exactly the right word to describe these forms, as the term denotes more consensus than reality might dictate.

I do think that we need to expand our definition and construction of the types of corporate alliances that are possible and productive to include collaboration with collectives that identify with political or occupational norms and values.

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