Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Fourth Open Source Incline?

By Guest Writer +Dana Blankenhorn

I recently wrote a piece for which likely drew little notice, because it was really aimed at y'all.

I've covered open source software since 2005, and spent a lot of time tracking how companies manipulate the rules of open source to suit themselves. While I was pushed out of ZDNet at the end of 2010 and now find myself doing financial journalist at TheStreet, SeekingAlpha and MotleyFool (with more offers coming in), I am still at heart a reporter, and still devoted to the technology beat, peering around each corner to see what might happen next. (Credit image right:

Anyway, about the open source inclines.

One of my earliest pieces for ZDNet theorized the existence of such an incline--the idea being that the more even-handed the license, the more likely it was people would contribute code and other help to a project. You might call this the Open Source License Incline.

I wrote it because I was friendly at the time with the folks at  Appcelerator, who started in Atlanta but quickly moved to Silicon Valley. They had decided to license their mobile app code under the General Public License, or GPL, in order to draw contributors, and it seemed to be working, since the GPL is more “even-handed” than more “permissive” licenses like Apache, requiring that all contributors get access to all contributions.

A few years later, I returned to the subject and wrote the Open Source Development Incline, the idea being that a project's development model can impact how code contributors react to it.

This was just at the time when OpenStack, the open source cloud infrastructure, was starting up. Rackspace was then its corporate sponsor, but it was feeling pressure, to which it later succumbed, and placed the code into a separate foundation other companies could join. Off that, I believe, I was asked to keynote an Apache Foundation development conference, one of the great honors of my life. Can't say I did great, but I learned a lot.

In 2010 I completed my ZDNet trilogy with the Open Source Copyright incline--the idea being that where copyright is assigned also matters to contributors.

This was around the time Oracle tried to use copyright to seize control of open source projects it bought with Sun Microsystems. How open is any code, even GPL code, if a company can assert proprietary rights to what others wrote for it through copyright? Fortunately, courts have not seen fit to make open source a dead letter over this claim.

Thus, we come to my fourth revelation about open source inclines, the Open Source Access Incline.  Even if a project is open source, even if it's established, it can collapse if corporate contributors simply decide not to support it, or to restrict support of it by outside developers.

The news peg here is Google's decision to not only close out Google Reader, but, as CNET notes, all support for the Real Simple Syndication or RSS standard it uses. The aim, as Felix Salmon writes at Reuters, seems to be to keep users from regularly accessing data outside the Google walled garden.

I made this into a business story, as is the nature of my current work, but this was really a technical point: 

When a corporate sponsor controls a code base, when they're the ones making a market in it, they may as Google did try to kill the code base by withdrawing their support. Investors may see this as strength, but technical folks like y'all may also see it as weakness.

Which brings me to what Microsoft has done with its Kinect interface--as Fast Company writes, making code supporting the interface open source under the Apache License.

Microsoft's move, in a business sense, is weakness. But is it, in an open source sense, strength?

When I first wrote about the Open Source Incline, you may note that I illustrated the story with a right triangle–the whole thing was very Euclidean. With this latest piece, it seems like it's more like quantum mechanics, that there are at least four dimensions under which the rules of open source can be tweaked by companies hoping to seize its value and get some coder love for themselves.

And now that I've given you some of my time, perhaps you might offer some of yours in return and reflect on what drives open source contributions, what corporations can do to increase or decrease adoption, and where you see the state of play in the game of contributor vs. corporation.

-- Dana Blankenhorn

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