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Open Views

-Louis Suárez-Potts

8 March 2001

Creating the New Open Source

Calling these articles "Editor’s Column," has been, I realize, a mistake. My suspicion is that by using the word "Editor," I have left the unfortunate impression that these are editorials. They are not. As I stated earlier, my intention in these columns is to provide the community with news, views, and positions it might find of interest. An obvious function, too, is to give newbies a sense both of Open Source, its issues, and of OpenOffice.org, and its work.

So, I’ll rename it, to Open Views. My focus, however, will not substantially change. I will still examine the logic and practice of Open Source and OpenOffice.org.

Last week, I presented an interview with Sander Vesik, who, along with Armin Theissen, is a release engineer for OpenOffice.org. I asked him what I thought was a rather simple question, "It's difficult sometimes for those not familiar with the workings of an open-source project to understand just how positions are established and defined…." I expected as an answer something that would describe for those who are curious indications as to how an Open Source project is arranged and how power is distributed. But Sander responded–and for this I thank him!–in a way that went straight to the heart of any Open Source project and certainly to the heart of ours:

"OpenOffice.org isn't really an open-source project, and definitely not from the developer base point of view, having only one non-Sun committer. Well, this doesn't sound nice when taken on the face value. Yes, the code definitely is free, but the developer community and structures associated with that just haven't developed yet."

Sander went on to add that, "There are a great number of shades of gray between "totally Open Source" and "closed source." […] [Whether] a project is open or not doesn't depend so much on the license but how the whole project works. The license is only a small part of that, and not always the most important." The license, though important, is just a start. What counts, in the end, is the whole structure of the project. In this view, OpenOffice.org is thus not an open-source project, despite its license, because its community does not yet include very many outside contributors.

I actually disagree with Sander, though I can see why he should make his claim. And I believe that OpenOffice.org will progressively include more developers. But there is implicit in Sander’s argument the notion that there is a true–or "totally Open Source"–project, and I wonder. I wonder if Open Source has in fact undergone, or is undergoing, a revolution of sorts. And that we should no longer only look, say, to Linux or Apache, for definitions of what Open Source is or means.

Open Source, as a method and practice is changing or has changed because it has become commercially reasonable–smart, even!–for companies to release formerly proprietary code under an Open Source license and get people all over the world with no allegiance to and under no contract with to the sponsoring company to work on the project, often for free. This is a significant change; Open Source as such will become more a logical business strategy and method in which businesses seek the attention and interests of globally distributed developers than a cowboy culture in which hobbyists develop really neat hacks. Oh, that will stay; hacking for the sake of it and for the informal communities it builds will never go away. But Open Source as such is fast becoming a big business and, as they say, the paradigm has shifted.

Of course, as Sander implied, you can’t just hang out a sign that the code is now free and expect the thing to work. (Witness the telling problems facing HP right now.) You have to somehow establish a community to work on the code. I would add: and you need to create a political and technological infrastructure that allows the community to grow. For unlike Linux and Apache, which were never sponsored by corporations, OpenOffice.org must establish–and it is–an identity and structure that allows it easily to bring in new members. I think we are getting there.


Previous articles

1 March 2001 Interview: Sander Vesik

22 February 2001 Allchin's Demagoguery, by Bill Roth, guest contributor

15 February 2001 Interview with Wilfredo Sánchez

9 February 2001 Organizing Open Source

1 February 2001 Open Source and Its Culture

23 January 2001 Community Action

16 January 2001 Quo Vadis OpenOffice.org?

9 January 2001 The 613 build:  problems and opportunities

3 January 2001 Sun's open door

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