PHPNW12: Catching opportunities in Open Source

Christian Schaefer and Stefan Koopmanschap talking about Open Source and community. It’s nice every so often to sit in a talk which you’re in broad agreement with, and obviously as a keen proponent of a Open Source this talk was right slap bang in the middle of my interests. The notes below are a combination of what Christian and Stefan said and my thoughts as they spoke.

“What caused England, the colonial power to fritter away it’s head start within the span of a century, while the under developed agrarian state of Germany caught up rapidly, becoming an equally developed industrial nation by 1900?”

It seems that copyright was holding back the spread of knowledge in England.

“Open Source is free as in speech, not as in beer.”
Richard Stallman

Benefits for all of us: Open Source promotes the flow of knowledge, which benefits the society in which we live.
Benefits for individuals: Open Source is your CV, out there, an open and transparent record of your ability and attitude.

Your contribution does not need to be in code, you can also document, test, you can debate and propose UI. You can write about projects and contribute to the debate, showing a level of understanding and critical thinking.

Open Sourcing code provokes feedback and critical opinion on your ideas and implementations. You will receive different opinions and approaches to the problem you have tackled, and that feedback improves you as a developer, contributor, tester or analyst. This engagement of the community in your software promotes a higher level of decision making around the projects that engage in this way.

All this does depend, to an extent, on your project being popular and the proportions you will attract of users (typically with demands on your time) and developers (who will, with luck, contribute effort), which is something I, personally, am constantly trying to understand and weigh the benefits of.

So why should businesses use Open Source

There are “rock star” stories in this space, like Sensio with Symfony; however there can only be a few stories like this. A tempting scenario, but limited vacancies available.

So what other reasons do you have as a business to Open up? Similarly to individuals who are active in the Open Source community, a company working with Open Source are much more transparent to clients, you can see their efforts, you can see the level of respect they have in the communities they are active within.

Companies with reputation in the Open Source community, companies with “skin in the game”, have a greater sway within the communities they contribute to and so have more chance of getting bug reports addressed, patches accepted, and opinions heard, and this makes them more effective.

The maintenance problem

As I mentioned above, I’m often concerned often with pushing software out as Open Source and incurring a maintenance overhead for each project. The speakers maintain (no pun intended) that it is fine to push these projects out, but you should be clear that the terms are warranty free and you are not maintaining them. I think this is a fair approach in some situations, but I think it also depends on the blend of users of your software. My company, Code for the People, develops WordPress plugins for the projects we are commissioned to do; if those plugins are targeted at, or desired by, users, it is difficult to communicate this lack of warranty accurately to a non-technical set of people… and importantly they may well not have the means to maintain the software in the absence of a project maintainer. Is it morally appropriate to release your software in this situation? I’m not sure.

So what makes an Open Source project successful?

Activity, engagement, quality, availability.

“Well that’s fine for Merlin [Merlin Mann, Back to work podcast reference], but why should a company Open Source anything?”

A better question is “what should we Open Source, and what shouldn’t we Open Source?” Is the bit of code I’m looking at directly related to revenue? If not it might be a candidate for Open Source. Is it a problem others might have? Perhaps this piece of code is something which would benefit from the community effect within Open Source.

Blog your thoughts – Open Source your knowledge. It helps you, by crystallising your thoughts and forcing you to think them through (as I do here on this blog). It helps the community, by increasing the quantity of knowledge available. When reading blogs, it is important to leave positive feedback as well as constructive criticism; this helps the blogger and other readers.

Don’t forget the human connections

The connections you make in Open Source are genuine human engagements. The contact and the caring in an Open Source community can be vey inspiring at times, as people recognise the contributions that are made and connect with you on a personal level.

The key message I took from Christian and Stefan was that the power of Open Source is in an engaged community and joining in with that engagement, in all it’s forms provides great benefit.

See also this quote on the Open Source economy

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