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When Open Source is Free, But Definitely Not Equal


When Open Source is Free, But Definitely Not Equal

Sep 22, 2014By Michael Stoner

One of the big advantages of open source software (OSS) is that any developer, anywhere, can modify it — and release those modifications publicly so anyone can use them.

And therein lies a challenge that many open source advocates don’t stress enough: all open source tools are not created equal. The best tools are those with strong community support — not by users, but by developers who are invested in improving them. With OSS, it’s really important to explore the quality of the community that’s engaged with the system, which is a lot more important than its installed base.

Why is that so important?

The Two Approaches to Developing Open Source Software (OSS)

Eric S. Raymond, in his essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” described the two approaches to OSS development.

In the bazaar model, a community develops, refines, and extends the software. Linux is a great example: According to a CNET blog post , more than 1,400 developers contributed to the v 3.10 release.

In contrast, consider the cathedral model, in which an individual or a small group of coders work in relative isolation to come up with software, and then release it as open source.

Both approaches have their advantages. Both can result in great software. But consider what happens after release.

Software built by a bazaar starts with a huge advantage: there’s already a community supporting it. That support enables it to develop quickly. There are usually several releases available at the same time, which means that early releases are being tested and refined by people experienced enough not to be intimidated by the inevitable bugs. As a release undergoes this kind of use and matures, it becomes more stable and is ready for wider adoption by users who don’t have the technical capability of the early adopters. Developers who need new features create them, releasing them back into the community.

The Power of Community 

In contrast, most software developed by the cathedral model never achieves any kind of acceptance by this kind of broader community. If it improves at all, it’s because the original developers tweak it. In fact, in some cases, they fix bugs, issue updates, customize the software, and provide support for a fee.

This software could be great. And let’s be clear: there’s nothing inherently wrong with this business model. But in this respect, your option is almost exactly like that offered by companies that develop proprietary software. And it may even be more expensive.

So if you’re considering OSS that resembles what I’ve just described, be careful.

Take a very close look at the size of the community that has coalesced around the software. In content management, for example, you’ll measure against Drupal and WordPress. Each has large development communities, plus a constellation of companies that provide services like customization and support.

If you’re looking at other open source CMSs, ask yourself how big is the development team? And, how big is the community?

Then, remember: with open source, the bigger the community, the more people using and testing the software, fixing bugs, and ensuring that it works. And, in general, the more people involved in the development of open source products, the better they are.

You have to decide whether using a tool that’s free upfront, but has a limited community and therefore limited support, is worth the savings. And whether your institution wouldn’t be much better served by a product that has broader support.

  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?