What's Driving Open Source?

Open Source software has come a long way. The mainstream press has taken notice of some of the more prolific projects and even Microsoft is feeling intimidated by the swarms of coders who are pouring endless amounts of energy and creativity into Open Source software without much or any compensation. Here are some thoughts on what is driving individuals to power this newest force of nature named Open Source.

With the firm establishment of Open Source on the technological landscape, the question of "What is driving Open Source?" becomes more interesting. After all, skeptics of the Open Source concept are generally not easily impressed by the coolness of the software itself. They seek an understanding similar to a business model, where there are concrete rationales for actions and the underlying goals (make money, increase share holder value) are clear.

How can Open Source possibly work?

One of the primary enablers of Open Source, is technology itself. Without the Internet or personal computers, the Open Source movement would be non-existent. Since so much of Open Source development takes place online, it would be near impossible and cost prohibitive to fuel such community efforts.

If the Open Source community had to rely on geographic proximity, it would be impossible to congregate as varied a group of individuals to work on one particular project such as Linux or Apache. It is the Internet which is enabling the meeting of like-minded individuals and permits for their collaboration.

This interconnectedness is one of the most powerful assets of the Open Source community. Development is done in a very dynamic environment, which is very resilient to problems in any particular corner of the project. If one individual leaves a project, it is much easier to bring someone new into the team, without having to go through a (many times) geographically limited hiring process. Granted, it is still important to seek out qualified individuals, but that is simply a given. Not all volunteers are created equal, nor are all employees.

Yes, there was that word volunteer. Isn't that the crux of the problem, that it's just not reasonable to run your business on the basis of volunteer efforts?!

What's in it for the volunteers?

It is understandable where companies and to an extent individuals feel that they would be at the mercy of volunteers. After all, there is nothing holding any volunteer to continue improving or fixing software. Nobody, want's to go through the trouble of learning or switching to software package only to have the rug pulled out from under them.

The motivation for many of these Open Source volunteers is the same as for volunteers in other areas. It makes them feel good to contribute, help others solve a problem, and sometimes gain a little fame (notoriety ;-). It's a hobby, that extends beyond the mere occupation of ones time. Something useful is produced and then shared with others who appreciate their efforts (Thanks to everyone who has saved me a lot of time!).

Isn't this all very unusual?

This phenomenon of Open Source is at the moment very narrowly limited to software (or at least software related) endeavors. Given that the technology (and Internet) are such profound enablers of the Open Source movement, it is only natural that highly technical undertakings would be the first to utilize these tools.

This is in my opinion the first time in history, where such a massive volunteer effort is used with such great success. Until recently, volunteer work has been generally limited within smaller locales. Even then, volunteer work has offered amazing results. Disaster Relief is one such area in which volunteers are many times indispensable.

Beyond the use of the Internet, Open Source projects also differ in another way from other types of volunteer efforts: Geeks. This is one of those unique outlets in which Geek types (you know how you are ;-) are able to provide a tremendous value while still doing what comes so natural. Geeks (and I use this term in the good way) are able to use their vast skills in the perfect context, which in turn increases their engagement with this movement. They like what they do and it does not require them to overcome much inertia to become Open Source Volunteers.

True, many Open Source contributors spend their working days doing much of the same thing, which is programming. But as in many other areas of the work place, the opportunities for creative ideas and decisions are limited. Deadlines, feature requests and bugs abound, leaving many programmers with little to no opportunity to implement their own ideas. But the ideas are there none the less, and Open Source projects allow for the release of all this creative energy.

What does all this mean?

In the end these are just some thoughts on what I feel are driving forces behind Open Source. These thoughts are based on conversations with friends and co-workers, as well as introspection. Perhaps some day the Open Source concept will penetrate other sectors of our world. There are many possibilities and I imagine there are many people out there who wish they could change things for the better within their respective fields. After all, most people would improve things given a chance.

I have thought somewhat about other applications for this type collaborative effort. Credit unions are somewhat like Open Source (except the employees draw a pay check). Personally, I like the thought of an Open Source HMO. Perhaps this would be a way to curb the growing health care costs. Unfortunately, I don't have much background there ...