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Sustainable Open Source

Pure open source projects for the most part fit on a spectrum between “dead” and “permanently about to die.”

The vast majority are dead. This silent evidence can be found in random search results popping up old sourceforge projects not updated in a few years.

The two obvious questions are why is this so, and does it matter?

The why is pretty easy. Without a rational set of incentives to continue a project, the irrational takes over and the project blows up. If you’re not working to help your customers so you can pay the rent, you’re there for some other reason. It’s fun, the ideology is attractive or some other reason. This is why non-profits are full of crazy. The challenge is that things are only fun for so long and then you leave.

The great churches of open source might be linux in all its forms and wikipedia. Wikipedia is clearly about to die, because they tell you every time they run a new fund raising campaign. The various linux things are all about to die: Debian gave way to Ubuntu which is apparently giving way to Mint.

Now, should we care?

I argue we should. Having slightly more stable open projects would have a number of benefits. Most of these benefits are hard to prove and intangible. For example, imagine Debian becoming Ubuntu without creation of intermediary projects and all that wasted effort. To the end user there’s a little less friction in using one distribution rather than switching. But, if there was stability and better incentives, maybe all linux distributions wouldn’t look like Windows 98 – maybe designers would be incentivized to contribute meaningfully instead of running away screaming.

Or, Wikipedia without the period funding spam. It’s hard again to quantify the inconvenience of the banners asking for money as opposed to something else like advertising or reddit’s community-driven ads to fund the project rather than donations.

It appears that open projects typically get taken over by the ideological extremists who want everything to be free, everywhere and all the time. This makes it difficult to achieve anything so the middle group leave to form some new project. The original dies and then the new one eventually gets taken over and so on repeatedly. The people with a profit motive aren’t usually there in the first place, since they’re happily using a mac, windows or whatever the proprietary version is of the project.

The lack of profit motive has other side effects. It means UI/UX in open projects is stuck around the Windows 98 era as I mentioned. It means that reddit owns the community and content that wikipedia should be embracing. It means new improved things typically aren’t open projects. Open projects are typically open copies of existing things, cheaper and faster and less bugs. But still copies.

The other models for creating Intellectual Property have their own downsides of course. VC-backed stuff (open or closed) tends to blow up 90+% of the time. Closed projects don’t get widespread input and improvements where it matters.

I think hybrid dual-licensing is the future. It worked ok for MySQL. It’s working for many other projects too, and it doesn’t look as draining as doing purely open projects while still paying the rent.

One Response to Sustainable Open Source

  1. mikel January 30, 2015 at 12:58 pm #

    Worth keeping in mind, not all, maybe most, open source projects do not need to last. They serve their purpose for a time, then something else better might come along. Same as start ups, even more so … a lot easier to start an open source project and let it go stale.

    Are there particular projects which failed, but shouldn’t have? I think the examples other than Ubuntu or Wikipedia (who seem to be doing ok, all things considered) of projects which haven’t made it because of extreme strategies?

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