Open Source

OPEN SOURCE….Kieran Healy has an interesting post about the Open Source movement and asks what I think is the key question: why do people volunteer to work on Open Source projects for free?

The best predictor of whether you?ve volunteered time or money recently is whether you?ve been asked. So we need to know much more about the organizational side. Volunteerism has been a constant in the software/hacker community since its inception, yet the open-source explosion is a comparatively recent affair. My intuition is that the real causal traction is in social organization or institutions, not individual motives. Interestingly, this view is supported by some of the people involved in the comunity. Jeff Bates, of OSDN, was a commenter on the last session and said he wanted to know how a project aggregates people. This seems like exactly the right question to me.

I’ve been a skeptic of Open Source for a long time, and it’s not because I have anything against Linux. My problem is more fundamental: how do you keep these projects going? To pick a specific example, what happens to Linux when Linus Torvalds gets bored with it?

Well, who knows? Maybe somebody will pick it up, and maybe Linux will do fine. After all, the internet is mostly run by volunteers and it’s doing OK.

But how many other successful Open source projects will there be? How many projects are there where someone will become obsessed enough with the idea to do all the organizing? And how many high quality coders are there who are willing to get talked into participating?

I suspect the answer is: very few. So maybe Linux and a few other Open Source projects will be successful ? although even that’s a stretch in the long run ? but there aren’t enough organizers and volunteers around to make a dent in the other 99.9% of software that’s equally critical but much less cool. That includes the vast majority of extremely dull business software that’s the real linchpin of the sofware industry.

In Kieran’s comments, Mary Kay Kare analogizes Open Source to the volunteerism that characterizes the science fiction fan community. It’s an intriguing comparison, but let’s face it: volunteerism doesn’t have a great track record competing with profit-motivated business concerns. I suspect that when all is said and done, the invisible hand will beat out the open source with hardly a fight.