It may be true that to give is better than to receive, but the opposite principle seems to operate in open source, and it may have serious, negative consequences for the long-term health of the open-source ecosystem.
While it used to be fashionable to criticize Google and the Web companies for skimming the cream off open-source communities, Google has become a model open-source citizen, actively and aggressively hosting and contributing to open-source projects. Today the biggest beneficiary of open source, and the one that gives commensurately little back, is enterprise IT.
I presented on this topic at the New York CTO Club in 2008, and discovered that of the roughly 50 CTOs and CIOs in attendance, virtually none of them had plans to contribute code back to open-source projects, for a variety of reasons. What I didn't understand, and which Dan Woods points out in a Forbes article on Tuesday, is the real crux of the problem with enterprise contributions to open source:
When it comes to open-source communities, individuals are much better citizens than institutions. The enlightened self-interest that causes individuals to send back bug fixes, contribute ideas for new features and write documentation is much harder to find in institutions.
This makes perfect sense. Open source luminary Eric Raymond wrote about the importance of "egoboo" to drive open-source contributions; namely, the search for public recognition for one's personal contributions to an open-source project. Within the context of a corporation, however, there's little reputation currency to be gained, and perhaps significant job security to be lost, by contributing code to an open-source project.
The corporate open-source developer's dilemma?
The key to unlocking this dilemma so that the majority of the world's software developers--developers that work within enterprise IT and not for Microsoft or other vendors--can share the benefits of open source, writes Woods, is to begin to measure these alleged benefits:
If collaboration and participation in open source and other communities is really as valuable as claimed, the benefits should start to be measured. If the benefits are tangible, it won't take long for stock analysts to ask CEOs and boards of directors if they are not only using open source, but if they are participating as well. Then change will come.
I agree. Perhaps for this reason, the Open Source Business Conference (March 24-25, 2009 in San Francisco), which I chair, is attracting unprecedented numbers of financial analysts this year. OSBC has managed to get a smattering of analysts each year since its founding in 2004, but this year there are dramatically more that have registered.
Assuming they begin to report the benefits of open-source participation--a key theme of OSBC 2009--on Wall Street, perhaps we'll start to see enterprise IT participate as corporations and not merely as individuals in open source. As this begins to happen, open source will truly come to dominate how software is developed and sold...or not, as the case may be.