Some time ago – not too long ago – contributors to Open Source Software – nay Free Software – used to be highly motivated geeks mainly driven by the need to scratch their personal itch. Swarms of such geeks got together in the nascent stages of the Internet and built solutions such as GNU tools, Linux, Apache, Sendmail, Perl, Python, Ruby, GNOME, Debian, Slackware, etc. More importantly they built communities. LUG meets, Install fests, mailing lists, IRC were the places that inspired and helped Free/Open Source Software take roots.
And that was when individuals were looked upon with great respect and celebrated amongst these communities as heroes for creating cutting-edge software. A Marcelo Tosatti, who at a ripe age of 18 would decide what features would go into the Linux kernel, an Alan Cox, whose decision to take a sabbatical to study management caused a few ripples, Miguel de Icaza whose influence and contributions were stuff that made legends, Rasmus Ledorf, Monty Widenius, Brian Behlendorf, Richard M Stallman – names among others who were recognized and who inspired thousands others to contribute their mite to Open Source. This was what Eric S Raymondtermed as the Bazaar as opposed to the proprietary and big company Cathedral model.
Cut to the present. Open Source Software is mainly driven by commercial interests. Contributions based on an individual’s interest has decreased radically. Developers responsible for path-breaking tools and packages are no longer recognized by name. Instead, a Hadoop is Yahoo’s Open Source project, Go was written at Google, Docker, Chrome, etc where the individual’s name is lost in a marketing scheme of things.
So, is this change a bad thing? Has the community interest lost out to commercial interests? Are individuals no more motivated to contribute? Do idealism driven interests matter anymore?
I believe that this change has benefited the community as a whole. When there was minimal or no commercial interest in the open source software that one contributed to, the individual’s interests had to be subsidized by the organization he worked at. Hence the profiles of the contributors were more like academicians (eg Alexey Kuznetsov), students (eg Linus Torvalds), hobbyists (eg Bruce Perens) or committed idealists (eg Richard Stallman).
With companies, corporations and non-profits backing newer open source projects, there is a slew of cutting edge technologies available for everybody to use and improve.
- This has ensured that the same technologies that helped Google gain scale and solve problems are available to some students in a remote town in India to cut their teeth with.
- This has helped seed thousands of startups who wouldn’t need to license expensive technologies just to attempt and realize their ideas.
- This has helped lay consumers who use such open source technologies without knowing its technical intricacies. (eg Android).
This has also helped companies and corporations benefit from the value additions other companies/individuals make to the projects. Corporations also stand to gain from a huge talent pool that have already demonstrated their expertise using the same tools that their engineering teams use. It also helps that these open source software face almost no entry barriers into billion-dollar companies, which earlier was the case.
Nowadays, it is a given that the platform of choice for any application to be developed has to be invariably open source (Linux, Chrome, MySQL, NodeJS, etc). Free/Open Source Software also levels the playing fields for different sized companies alike.
So, the changing face of Open Source Software development from a Cathedral to a Bazaar to a Bazaar-in-the-Cathedral model has had a profound impact and is definitely benefiting the community as a whole.
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