Living in a state of accord.

Open Core, Open Development and Co-location

It would be hard to have not noticed the on-going debate around “open core”. From what I can tell, it largely, but not completely, boils down to concerns about a product being called “open source” if the core that’s open source is generally unusable without the commercial-only additions. Mostly, people are ok with there being separate commercial-only plugins or tools provided so long as the open source product can stand alone and be useful and effective. Dave Neary hits on what I think is a key warning sign that a product is using a damaging open-core model:

And that’s what I think gets people riled up – if you’re releasing something as free software, then there should at least be the pretence that you are giving the community the opportunity to fend for itself – even if that is by providing an “unofficial” git tree where the community can code up GPL features competing with your commercial offering, or a nice forum for people to share templates, themes and extensions and fend for themselves. But what gets people riled is hearing a company call themselves “an Open Source company” when most of the users of their “open source” product do not have software freedom.

The open source definition is all about what license is being used for the software, but the effectiveness of something being open source is at least equally affected by the development model in use. The ability for anyone to jump in and contribute to the project reasonably easily is what drives extra innovation and enables the development investment to be spread among many users of the software. Having access to the source code and the ability to modify it yourself is useful to avoid lock-in, but maintaining the entire software is generally too expensive to be worthwhile for users – it’s cheaper to incur the costs of switching to another product instead.

What Dave Neary’s paragraph above starts to move towards is looking for a product that uses open development rather than just open source. Bertrand Delacrétaz wrote up how we work at Apache recently and it’s a great model of things to look for in open development1. In particular Apache lives and dies by the first item: “All technical discussions and decisions on public mailing lists” or as I’ve often heard it put, “if it didn’t happen on the mailing list, it didn’t happen”. Unless all discussions wind up happening in a public forum, be it a mailing list, forum, wiki, wave or whatever, it’s unlikely that open development will be possible2.

So all of this leads me to a somewhat unexpected realisation: any open source company that insists on having all its developers colocated is failing to do open development effectively. If your employees can’t develop effectively from remote locations, how can you possibly expect to benefit from significant community contributions?

Anyone have examples of companies using exclusively co-located developers but still fostering an open development model?

1 – of course there are other approaches to open development, but few are as well articulated as the Apache way these days.

2 – Apache does use face to face meet-ups, but they make a point of keeping the mailing list in the loop about what was discussed there so everyone can still be involved

Category: OpenSource