Organic vs. Non-organic Open Source

Brian Aker dropped by and replied to my previous essay by making the following comment:

I believe you are hitting the nail on the “organic” vs “nonorganic” open source. I do not believe we have a model for going from one to the other. Linux and Apache both have very different models for contribution… but I don’t believe either are really optimized at this point.

Optimization to me would lead to a system of “less priests” and more inclusion.

I made an initial reply as comment, and then decided it was so long that I should promote it to a top-level post.

I assume that when Brian talks about “organic open source” what he means is what I was calling an “open source development community”. Some googling turned up the following definition from Mozilla Firefox’s organic software page: “Our most well-known product, Firefox, is created by an international movement of thousands, only a small percentage of whom are actual employees.”

This puts it in contrast with “non-organic” software, where all or nearly all of the developers are employed by one company. (And anyone who proves talented at adding features to that source base soon gets a job offer by that one company. 🙂 By that definition we can certainly see projects like Wine, Mysql, Ghostscript (at one time), and others as fitting into that model, and being quite successful. There’s nothing really wrong with the non-organic software model, although many of them have struggled to make enough money when competing with pure proprietary softare competitors, with MySQL perhaps being the exception which proves the rule.

In most of these cases, though, the project started more as an organic open source, and then transitioned into the non-organic model when there was a desire to monetize the project — and/or when the open source programmers decided that it would be nice if they could turn their avocation into a vocation, and let their hobby put food on the family table.

Solaris, of course, is doing something else quite different, though. They are trying to make the transition from a proprietary customer/supplier relationship to trying to develop an Open Source community — and what John’s candidate statement pointed out is that they weren’t really interested in creating an organic open source developer community at all, but they wanted the fruits of an open source community — with plenty of application developers, end-users, etc., all participating in that community.

We don’t have a lot of precedent for projects who try to go in this direction, but I suspect they are skipping a step when they try to go to the end step without bothering to try to make themselves open to outside developers. And by continuing to act like a corporation, they end up shooting themselves in the foot. For example, the OpenSolaris license still prohibits people from publishing benchmarks or comparisons with other operating systems. Very common in closed-source operating systems and databases, but it discourages people from even trying to make things better, both within and outside of the Open Solaris core team. Instead, they respond to posts like David Miller’s with “Have you ever kissed a girl?”. (Thanks, Simon, for that quote; I had seen it before, but not for a while, and it pretty well sums up the sheer arrogance of the Open Solaris development team.)

So while Linux may not be completely optimized in terms of “less priests” and more inclusion, at least over 1200 developers contributed to 2.6.25 during its development cycle. Compared to that, Open Solaris is positively dominated by “high priests” and with a “you may not touch the holy-of-holies” attitude; heck, they won’t even allow you to compare them to other religions without branding you a heretic and suing you for licensing violations!