Open Source communities: powering the digital revolution
Cedric Thomas, CEO, OW2 Consortium
When Richard Stallman first put out a call for contributions to help him develop a new, open operating system, on 27 September 1983, it was probably very far from his thoughts that he was about to start a movement that would turn the software industry completely upside-down. And when, almost ten years later on 25 August 1991, Linus Torvald asked us to send him suggestions for the operating system that he was in the process of developing, did he imagine the role that he was ultimately going to play? And what about the Webmasters who set up a mailing list to track and co-ordinate the improvements they were making to the Web server at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA)? Did they really set out with the intention of making the very first version of the Apache server public and to launch the Apache foundation?
These few key moments set the foundation stones of Open Source. When IT experts share the same interests in a particular technology; when they pool their skills to develop a piece of software, without money changing hands and without any expectation of reward apart from their own personal satisfaction and the recognition of their peers; they are creating a de facto Open Source community. The very first of these were born out of spontaneous initiatives. Nowadays, the phenomenon has grown to such a scale that the world of Open Source is actually defined by its communities. Each technology has its own one: Perl, PHP, Java, Joomla, Ruby, JOnAS, Drupal...
The growth of Open Source technology communities is due essentially to the way they operate; which is at least as efficient, if not more so, that the way that teams within companies work. Even though that might seem counter-intuitive for many of us, the mechanisms of Open Source development are highly effective not only in terms of cost-effectiveness, but also technically, strategically and socially.
In economic terms, the value of the code that is released is often more than compensated by the value of the work, expertise or marketing image that the community brings. And this applies to such an extent that even proprietary software publishers are starting to develop communities around their own technologies.
On the technical front, communal development produces good-quality code, because it forces you to make public only code that its correctly, and even elegantly, written. What’s more, that code is reliable because the community extends the diversity of test conditions and it is state-of-the-art because any modifications are instantly made available to the community, so it improves more rapidly than proprietary code.
On the strategic front, for a software publisher, choosing the Open Source option is one of the only ways of developing a competitive position in the marketplace these days. For users, choosing software produced by a community is the best way to retake control of their information systems.
Finally, to the extent that Open Source communities are implementing the knowledge-sharing principles from the academic world – transparency of publications and free peer reviews – it is clear that they represent, in social terms, a powerful driver for both personal and professional enrichment. An Open Source community liberates its members, by making them active players. And it is for this reason that countries like Brazil and China are highly attuned to this model nowadays.
To sum up, I want to underline the fact that the very nature of Open Source communities is undergoing an evolution. Although the first communities emerged almost by accident, we are now seeing deliberate community-focused strategies appearing. In fact today all software publishers – both proprietary and Open Source – as well as organizations like the Linux and Eclipse foundations and consortia such as OW2 are all following similar strategies in their own ways. Open Source communities have largely proved their effectiveness, and they are making a real contribution to the transformation of the software industry and the digital revolution.