Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Vision of the Future of FOSS Collaboration

By Guest Writer +Aaron Seigo 

The Collaboration Pyramid
The Collaboration Pyramid
(Photo credit: oscarberg)
Participation and open access are key themes in Free software. It encourages dynamic community structures that blur the line between technology consumer and creator. This has been so successful that echoes of it can be found throughout the technology world from mobile app user engagement to game community content creation. Bringing such interaction patterns into the mainstream is perhaps one of Free software's great social accomplishments. That is not to say that all is well: the topic of user empowerment and participation in Free software is often a contentious one. Depending on the day of the week and whom you ask, you may hear that Free software is an empowering agent for users with low barriers and high levels of interaction with developers .. or that there is a growing disconnect between users and the technology projects. Reality lies somewhere between those two poles, but few doubt that improvements could be made. How to do that is a question that floats in the air without many compelling answers. It turns out that there is another challenge facing Free software which could become a terrific opportunity for improving and even redefining user-developer interaction.

Collaboration Between Free Software Communities Free software development derives momentum from a set of competing principles: competition and cooperation. The ability for anyone to choose to work with the technology on their terms, including forking it, creates an environment of healthy competition that prods individuals, companies and communities forward. Free software projects are also able to collaborate openly with each other to share development costs and sharpen ideas. Recently we've seen rather more of the competition side of this dynamic in the form of forking, projects diverging on bad terms and walled-garden development. Collaboration seems to have taken a back seat in all this and Free software communities are in need of support in this area.

This is the official logo of the freedesktop.o...
This is the official logo of the project. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Collaboration Spaces In 2000, a collaboration project, was founded to build a base platform for Free desktop software. Called, it focused on infrastructure technology and its early successes were numerous leading to a new level of continuity for Free software desktop users. Basic things like drag and drop and application menus were finally standardized and collaboration between the two dominant projects of the day were brought to new heights.

Unfortunately, no process or governance guidelines were laid down when was founded. The participants opted instead for a more fluid approach, reflecting how many Free software projects were typically run at the time. This lack of structure led to the slow decline of as a collaboration zone. Fewer specifications were created, fewer were broadly adopted and discussion dwindled, today dominated by off-topic inquiries on a quiet mailing list. Collaboration became so difficult that many developers grew disillusioned and simply walked away.

Attempts to to improve from within met with stop energy. Today, is primarily a source code hosting service.

Changing Landscapes 

While was faltering, the Free software landscape was evolving. Today the desktop is only one form factor in a continuum including handsets, tablets, media centers and in-vehicle displays. Online services, mobile applications and web frameworks have extended and blurred the lines that once sharply defined the “the desktop”. 

The number of Free software desktop communities has also bloomed. In 2000, there were essentially two that were active, dynamic and had large user bases. Now, there are dozens of them. The number and variety of desktop environments bloomed in recent years, and significant communities have blossomed around individual application suites. More companies have become deeply involved and the

Free software projects themselves have become more sophisticated in their organization: non-profit foundations are now the norm rather than the exception. It's an embarrassment of riches on the one hand, but collaboration in general has not kept pace with this changing landscape resulting in a disjointed and inefficient landscape with much unrealized potential ... and therein lies the opportunity.

Co-creating the Next Collaboration Zone 

Creating and maintaining the structure of a collaboration zone is probably a task better suited to people who aren't software developers. Not only are they often overly busy with their development tasks, managing a collaboration space takes a set of skills rarely found in engineers. Those skills can, however, be found amongst the community of Free software users.

A platform for collaboration built and managed by dedicated users would not only provide a new way to become constructively involved with Free software, it could also remove an inherent conflict of interest that arises when people re tending the space in which technologies from their own projects are being offered for standardization.

Collaboration logo.
Collaboration logo.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Facilitating such a collaboration zone does not require actually selecting the Free software technology standards of tomorrow. The role that needs filling is that of creator and facilitator of process and curator of the results. A good starting point might be a requirements gathering exercise where Free software developers are invited to provide insights into what would help them collaborate more effectively. That process of discovery alone would be a great opportunity for positive interaction between the user and development communities. Based on the findings, light-weight processes might then be devised, tested and put into action. Once in place, people with an interest in helping Free software progress would continue to facilitate the processes, giving developers a much needed helping hand in ensuring that their efforts blend seamlessly and take maximum advantage of other If successful, such an effort could be nothing short of revolutionary in terms of bringing Free software communities together. It could offer a unique way for non-developers to gain insight into the processes of Free software development and bring the user and developer communities closer together.

The opportunity to simultaneously address two important, seemingly disparate challenges is a rare one. All that is needed now is for a few intrepid souls to take on the challenge.

-- Aaron Seigo

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