When Is Open Source Not That Open Source?

When Is Open Source Not That Open Source?

Setting the legal nuances of the chosen open source license aside, wouldn’t two products under any open source license have the same claim to the open source moniker? Maybe so technically, but for many engineers who contribute to the development of open source projects, like Linux Foundation Chief Platform Strategist Ted Ts’o, there’s much more to the open source designation than just the license.

Borrowing the Mozilla term “organic,” which describes a development process that draws upon the contributions of a diverse developer community and many different companies, Ts’o draws a distinction between organic open source and non-organic open source. Ts’o explained this distinction to me as he headed to the airport for a flight to Portland, Oregon, where he’s attending the OSCON show and participating in a panel discussion about this very issue.

According to Ts’o, the difference between organic and non-organic is related to how much influence a single corporation has in the development of an open source product. The broader the developer community around a project and the lower the barrier to contributing, the more organic it is. Citing Linux, Apache, Mozilla, and Eclipse among those in the organic open source camp, Ts’o singled out OpenSolaris as a prime example of non-organic open source. In fact, he objected to “Sun claiming that Solaris is just like Linux because it’s open source”–a characterization that seemed to inspire his interest in asserting these definitions.

Ts’o, an IBM employee, said 99 percent of OpenSolaris development comes from Sun engineers. He added that Sun has a “heavyweight development process” in place for OpenSolaris, in which Sun engineers must sponsor any individual contributions as well as shepherd submitted patches. “If you’re not accepting patches from the outside world, you have to wonder whether things have really changed a lot since the Solaris 8 and 9 days [when a developer could purchase the operating system on a CD for $75],” said Ts’o.

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Ts’o does concede that the organic/non-organic distinction is more of a business argument than a technical argument, even labeling the OpenSolaris ‘just like Linux’ message as marketing to young developers. He made no judgments about how a non-organic development process impacts the quality of the OpenSolaris end product. He did, however, praise the organic approach for its individual rather than corporate stance, which he believes nurtures a very broad developer community, shields the project from corporate upheavals such as layoffs–which in a non-organic project can lead to a debilitating loss of  developers, and ensures that decisions are based on the project’s best interests rather than market interests.

So depending on whom you speak to, a license alone doesn’t determine open source. The development process–as well as the degree and ease of individual participation allowed–are just as important. And don’t even bring “free” into the discussion: Do you mean free as in beer, or free as in speech …


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