Opensource: Walking the line between crowdsourcing and a captain-less ship

Over the course of the last four or five years, the idea of opensource has become more prominent but is this taking the industry down the best path.

Opensource is a fantastic idea, one which has launched new subsectors and opened the doors for innovators around the world. Some of the industry’s most innovative concepts would not have arisen if not for the principles and acceptance of opensource. It has also moved the industry away from vendor lock-in, encouraging competition and negating the financial might of some of the giants which have dominated the landscape for some time. But is opensource all good?

A couple of weeks ago, your correspondent was at the Openstack Summit in Barcelona and witnessed the good which can be achieved through openness and collaboration. Openstack as a platform has brought advancement to the masses, allowing the community to dictate the direction of innovation bringing together the finest minds in the world, irrelevant as to who signs their paycheques, under a common goal.

Now this sense of collaboration and community is what fuelled growth for the Openstack platform, its created opportunities which may never have existed before, but there could be a sense of aimless advancement. If guidance is continually taken from the lower echelons of the industry (no offence intended) will big picture direction be lost?

First of all, what is opensource? As with other buzzwords, there is a sense it can be misused by marketing teams aiming to capitalize on generic Google searches.

“People have been using opensource as a marketing tool to date, and just because your put a bit of open code out there into the world doesn’t mean it’s opensource,” said Angel Diaz, IBM’s VP of Cloud Technology & Architecture. “If you don’t have a community around it or you don’t have a meritocracy on how the code evolves, it’s like putting garbage on the kerb and no-one coming to collect it, because they don’t care.

“Customers are just as locked in to this code because the company is the only one who controls its development. If I want to change my license tomorrow, I’m in trouble. If I need support you have to pay that company because you can’t go to anyone else. A lot of what is out there at the moment are still lock-in situations with a opensource paint job.

“We’ve been very clear with the world that opensource means open governance, it means open meritocracy, there is no single point of control, the community makes the decisions. Unless you have these things it’s a lie; it’s nothing more than a marketing tool.”

While it is slightly worrying that some marketing departments may consider the use of opensource as a means to sell more in a misleading fashion, it isn’t really that surprising. Another serious question which needs to be asked is about the direction in which opensource projects are heading, if the community is the deciding factor, how can you be sure technology is heading in the right direction in the most efficient manner.

Community consensus is a wonderful thing and can aid companies in making decisions, but sometimes the community will decide what it wants on a very human level. It will think about what is right, right now, as opposed to what is right in two to three years’ time. Those innovators who see the long-term potential of technology are rare commodities. They recognise not the direction of a technology, but can imagine a parallel which can reap even greater benefits. This doesn’t happen with the development of every technology, but some of mankind’s greatest advancements have come through this unobstructed vision with few possess.

In these circumstances, the community can be wrong. Let’s correct that actually. Maybe not wrong, but wouldn’t achieve the full potential. A prime example is Henry Ford. If he had listened to his customers and the greater community, he would have bred faster horses. If there not a risk in leaving the decision making to the community?

“There is always a risk of doing that and the paradigm is very interesting,” said Darrell Jordan-Smith, VP of Worldwide Sales at Red Hat. “There are companies that no longer exist because they believed they could tell the industry what it wanted.

“We don’t aspire to be the captain and control the direction, because that’s not how opensource works. We want to be good stewards of opensource and influence the community to get better decisions and products made.

“Companies like Sun Microsystems. They focused on deciding what the market wanted, they thought ‘we’ll build it and they’ll use it, because we know how to build what the customer wants’. There’s a balance to be struck there, and I happen to think the more people you have focused on a particular problem in theory you have a much larger chance of achieving the end result.

“That end result might not necessarily be what you went in to achieve, it may be an adjunct that comes out of it which delivers value. There’s another way to look at it though. We at Red Hat believe innovation resides elsewhere, it’s how you build the ecosystem to support that level of innovation which resides it other businesses and incorporate it into your own ideas. That’s what opensource provides.”

Now is not saying opensource is a bad thing, but asking individuals in the community to fix a problem may lead to certain projects being pigeon holed. Human nature is to focus on driving towards an objective which is most beneficial to that individual. Without a big picture person overseeing the development of these projects, potential benefits could be missed.

Opensource isn’t necessarily a captainless ship, but as Darrell Jordan-Smith mentioned, there may be cause for responsible stewards.

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