What’s the Future Political Model for Open Source?

What is the historical analogue that's mostly likely to predict the future relationship between developers and end-users in open source? Will it be union and management (I hope not)? Amateur and pro athelete (Marc Fleury thinks so)? [more]

A week ago I noted an article at the Techworld site that I wanted to come back to, because it highlights an imbalance that can resolve in a number of ways in the future. The article is called An open letter to the open source community.


It’s a typical “here’s what we need from you guys” type article from the end-user perspective, directed at the open source development community. Try a Google search using the same title and you’ll find several others from the same perspective and making the same points. All of which gets me thinking about where things may head for the open source community and the end-user in the future.


Here are a few musings on that question, based on some historical examples of different types of power relationships that are in one way or the other relevant, although none of them is totally on point. Still, a more-or-less-accurate augury of the future might theoretically be assembled by using these (and certainly other) analogues, using these as a starting point:


Will it be like unions and management? Throughout the Industrial Revolution, management acquired near-total control of the production process and reaped nearly all of the benefits on the backs of the workers that typically worked long hours in unsafe conditions. Eventually, the union movement came about to redress the balance of power. Today, over a hundred years later, the relationship between management and labor is still highly charged and distrustful, with far more of a “win/lose” rather than a “win/win” dynamic.



This doesn’t seem to be where things will end up for developers and end-users, because it’s not where things began. So far, the end-users, and more and more vendors, are looking at open source as an opportunity and not a threat, and the atmosphere has been highly collaborative. But there’s always the possibility that things could diverge in the future as the stakes and the dependencies grow higher.




Will it be like amateur and pro sports? Until recent decades, anyway, amateurs were really amateurs, and really went for the gold medal, rather than the golden endorsement contract, while pro players had similar, but in important ways also different, goals, including filling the stands so that owners could fill players’ pockets as well as their own.




If the open source community does not provide what the end-users want (and what vendors, like pro team owners, therefore want to provide), there’s the possibility that there may be one licensing model, but two developer communities. One could be the pure developer community (“here’s what we want to build”) and the other could be the more hard-core commercial community of vendors and end-users (“here’s what we want to buy and sell”). Or, as Marc Fleury of JBoss would not very diplomatically have it, an “amateur” and a “professional” community.




I’d be surprised if there is not some of this reality in the future. After all, there already is today (certainly Marc thinks so), if you look at the most economically important open source projects. True, there may be hundreds of people that are technically part of a particular development community, but most of the actual work is often done by a much smaller group of individuals, the majority of whom are employees of large companies that want to influence the results and have the biggest headstart. And then there’s SourceForge, where just the opposite is true. So will things continue in this fashion, or go farther? My bet is on farther.




Will it be like architects and owners? When I left for college, I thought I was going to be an architect (the bricks and mortar kind). One reason I switched majors was that I was turned off by the “artiste” hubris of many of the architects of the day, who thought that their birthright to design Great Art Buildings (which were often also uncomfortable, inefficient and impractical buildings), and it was their clients obligation to pay the bills and live and work in what they were given. There’s certainly something of that today, where an open source community decides what it wants to work on, and can (and often does) care more about what they think the end-user should want, rather than what the end-user actually does want.




Will it be like libertarians and conservatives? Libertarians want maximum freedom from government restrictions. Conservatives generally want government off their backs in some cases, but want government at their backs in others (such as making recreational drugs illegal, even though that means that government will be telling people what they can and can’t do). That means that libertarians come out the same way as conservatives some times (as in believing that less government means better government), and not in others (as in objecting to drug control).




Open source advocates have a core set of beliefs that often does coincide with the desires of end-users (avoid lock in and the risk of abandonment) but not in others (consistency and reliability is desirable to end-users in many respects, even if it restricts freedom of design).




Does any of this matter? I think so. The march of open source into the commercial world has been one of the most fascinating and hopeful intellectual revolutions in my lifetime. But revolutions have a nasty history of coming out the wrong way when the glorydays of the barricades is followed up by the tedious process of actually governing disparate interest groups.




It’s worth looking back to learn from the past, and looking ahead to plan for the future. Understanding the relationships between developers and end-users, and planning ways to satisfy both, is a good way to make sure that that future is a happy one for all concerned.