Bazaar in the Cathedral – Changing faces of Open Source Software

Bazaar and the Cathedral

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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First posted on LinkedIn at

Comments on the Government’s Draft Open Source Policy

It is heartening to note that the new Government is trying hard to involve people in more and more of their policy initiatives[1]. One such initiative is their “Policy on Collaborative Application development by Opening the source code of Applications“.[2]

Since I have extensive experience working with Government Organizations to deploy various solutions, I take the liberty to comment and suggest some points that augment the central idea in their draft policy.

Need for standardization and simplification:

The foremost problem I see in order to create a culture of developing and using open source components are complex rules. Though there has been a start, a lot more simplification of rules is the need of the hour. In my experience, though we started out with a good set of documented processes, we finally ended up translating Swamy’s Handbooks and Manuals to Software Code. Very obviously the software turned out to be heavily customized for the usage of the organization.
Simplified and standardized processes across government organizations help in developing reusable and easily maintainable code. This, I think is a must do to encourage proliferation of open source culture.

A cloud based platform for apps
One of the main problems, most Government organization face is that they do not usually have dedicated IT personnel and even the ones they have are inundated with a lot of work. This leads to under-maintenance, support starved and no motivation to use scenarios.

A cloud based platform similar (in concept) to Salesforce[3] could go a long way in helping developers integrate components and solutions quickly, while easing maintenance nightmares for the organizations. Of course, the platform should be based on Open Source stacks.

Style Guides, Aesthetic Sense and Intuitive Design
Currently User Interfaces, most documentation (including this Draft Policy) suffer from just a “adequate-is-enough” syndrome. Recently there was an instance which made the rounds on social media, where a printout of a spreadsheet was pasted in another spreadsheet (for compliance) and circulated. As long as the real benefits of “digital” content is not realized by the user community, most of the efforts go useless.

Towards this, educating users, compiling and compelling adherence to style guides, inculcating an aesthetic sense towards creating content should be invested upon. Developers need to prioritize intuitive design, localization from the ground up for gaining maximum value from these efforts.

The Policy should consider these factors and put in a set of holistic guidelines, so that the entire program can be sustained and expanded.

I worked as a contractor for BARC, CSB, University of Mysore, BSNL to develop their e-Governance and other software for almost 10 years since 2001-2011. For most of them, I began by convincing them of the need to use open source software. I also committed to deliver and delivered the source code for software I developed.


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Frugal Innovation and Android One

Frugal Innovation

Android One looks to be the perfect example for global companies pondering overFrugal Innovation. The project seems to have got quite a few things absolutely right.

  • The consumer price point seems to be just right to target the lower and the middle income population which is a significant chunk of India’s whole.
  • The assembly is done locally by local partners.
  • The specs look highly competitive.
  • The software and some features are tuned to Indian needs and sensibilities.

Though they do not make money directly, Google’s monetization strategy from services like Search, Youtube, Mail look pretty sound and they should add significantly to their bottom-line from these markets. Especially since they could have a first movers advantage in the nascent vernacular markets.

There is an obvious lesson here for tackling the ‘Emerging Markets’ conundrums that lot of product teams in global companies face.

  • Deciding what features to strip so as to de-value their cutting edge innovations to make it affordable in these markets (eg Car manufacturers)
  • Bringing their innovations as-is with a significant cost reduction and risk “brand dilution”.
  • Sell products targeting a premium and niche customer base and fail to gain suitable market traction.

Google seems to have found a solution for all these difficulties and might just go on to create a customer base of the next 5 billion smartphone users.

Can this be a template for others? Only time can decide.

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Originally posted on LinkedIn at

Apple should buy Amazon. Here’s why!

Well, not the whole, but their entire technology division – including cloud and hardware.

‘Apple is a great hardware company, but are clueless when it comes to software’ – is an opinion that is shared across the industry and has almost become a cliché. This may not be really true as they were the ones who figured out how to adapt Unix for desktop usage.

However, when it comes to building data-driven products and services, their capabilities seem to be woefully inadequate. Even their cloud engineering prowessseem to be still lacking.

OTOH, Amazon is almost a monopoly when it comes to IaaS and PaaS. Also, their technologies are now deemed standard, with rival efforts like OpenStack copying their API, heuristics, etc. But, Amazon seems to be hitting quite a few blockers when it comes to consumer hardware. Though Kindle is by far their most popular hardware, the other devices haven’t captured consumers imagination like it has for Apple’s products. Amazon’s efforts at replicating Google’s services like Play, Store, etc have been pathetic with very few takers.

Amazon’s cloud services are the first choice for developers and start-ups when it comes to the cloud/backend services. Apple’s iOS platform is the first choice for developers when it comes to building apps and MacOS is increasingly the personal OS of choice for both developers and casual users.

Technical synergies aside, Amazon has been having quite a lot of problemsincreasing their profit margins. While most of their costs are attributed to the investments being sunk into developing new products, their retail operations seem to be making quite some money.

As on date, Apple(AAPL)’s market cap is around USD 640B and had cash reserves of about USD 160B last summer. In comparison, the entirety of Amazon (AMZN)’s market cap is around USD 142B. Though nobody knows the valuation of their technology business, some estimates say it might be around USD 50B by 2015. So Apple can easily afford to buy Amazon’s technology division and still have cash to burn.

Jeff Bezos could use some other muse. Not that he is short of them already!