Friday, June 27, 2014

Open Source as religion - when the Bazaar becomes a Cathedral

The seminal book on Open Source development "Cathedral and the Bazaar" talks eloquently about the difference between commercial software development and open source development.  In the past few years however there has been another shift, a shift where companies are actively releasing their technology into Open Source as a competitive differentiation.  A claim of 'we are open' because the source code is open.

The selling point then is the number of 'committers' (developers) that the company has on the open source project, this being their selling point because it means they can get your bugs fixed quicker because they have the inside track.

The competition between vendors using exactly the same open source distribution then becomes a question of who is the 'purest' the the vision and who has the most bodies contributing to it.  If an external company takes that source and releases their own version they are not simply frowned upon then are actively prevented from engaging in contribution as this would dilute the corporate messaging of the commercial companies who first established or who mainly contribute today to that open source program.

This isn't an entirely new thing, we used to see it quite a bit with some of the Java pieces and some would argue its related to what Linus does with Linux.  There is however a very big difference.  In those previous cases it was normally a single individual who made the original release and its that individual who then managed that control.  In Linus' case he isn't the commercial arm behind any of these things.

Its natural for this to have happened in the Open Source community as its become a commercial competitive weapon but it does really mean that Open Source is ceasing to become that historical bazaar and is instead in many cases now simply a different cathedral into which rigid company approaches are applied.  Its extremely hard for companies that have locked down millions in VC funding to enable their core market message "we own the code" to be diluted as their Open Source project becomes popular as this would reduce their differentiation and thus their market multiple as they look to IPO.

Open Source remains a strong approach and one that gives companies a level of security if a company ever goes bust, in that the code is still available.  But its quite clear to me that the VC funding that has flooded into the space has really destroyed the previous ad-hoc bazaar approach and instead simply re-created the Cathedral approach but with an Open Source release management system.