Power Law of Participation Applied to Open Source

April 30, 2006

Ross Mayfield describes the Power Law of Participation as patterns that “have emerged where low threshold participation amounts to collective intelligence and high engagement provides a different form of collaborative intelligence” (Mayfield). Within this model, a large number of users of social websites will not have a high level of engagement thus taking advantage of the value with few contributions back to the community while other users will contribute most of the content. This generates two very different forms of intelligence, collective and collaborative, which co-exist together to form the essence of a community.

This reminded me of a number of studies on open source that support this idea. For example, a case study of the Apache project published in 2000 found that 80% to 90% of the submissions came from a set of 15 core developers in a community of more than 3000 people. A study of the GNOME project had similar results with 11 people contributing most of the output. Relating this back to the Power Law of Participation, the small number of core community members leads to collaborative intelligence, while the larger community provides an important collective intelligence by contributing bug reports, ideas, and comments. These two types of contributors and the resulting intelligence generated both feed off of each other and allow the community to prosper. I would be interested to see how this applies to other communities.


A case study of open source software development: The Apache server (Mockus, Fielding, & Herbsleb, 2000).

Effort, co-operation and co-ordination in an open source software project: GNOME (Koch & Schneider, 2002).


Free as in Freedom or Free Beer

April 30, 2006

I have heard a number of people talk about Richard Stallman’s ideas in the context of wanting software to be free (as in price). This is a misunderstanding about how the Free Software Foundation defines the word “free” meaning freedom, including the freedom to view the source code, modify it, and redistribute it to others.

A recent incident in Brazil highlights this misunderstanding. At the 7th Annual International Free Software Forum, Stallman asked for a small donation to the Free Software Foundation (US$2.00 – $5.00) in exchange for the time that he spent signing autographs and posing for pictures. This resulted in a geek protest and march at the event. Richard Stallman responded with the following:

“I believe that all software ethically must be free, free in the sense of respecting the users’ freedom, but I don’t believe that software must be gratis–nor services, such as autographing or posing. Rather, I believe people deserve the freedom to decide whether to do these things. So I decline to support the newly formed gratis autograph movement. Instead, I hererby launch the free autographing movement, which advocates everyone’s freedom to sign autographs or not.” (NewsForge)

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Can Linux ever be a True Desktop OS?

April 26, 2006

Rob Enderle does not think Linux will ever get traction as a desktop OS. He presents an interesting argument based on history with IBM’s OS/2 and the OEM business model. He highlights a number of challenges including OEM costs, the number of Linux distributions, excessive advocacy, and more.

He also outlines “A Reliable Road Map to Linux Desktop Success”

“The list of clear requirements includes:

  • Clear OEM resources to match or exceed those currently provided by Microsoft. This would include R&D support and co-marketing dollars.
  • Embrace existing desktop requirements (roadmaps, application support, proprietary drivers, consistent patch releases schedules and documentation, clear escalation lines for support).
  • Seek out reasonable advocates who will take direction from their executives and not from other advocates.
  • Make it profitable for the OEM.” (Enderle)

His conclusion is that he doubts these requirements can be achieved. I think that we have many challenges before Linux can become a viable solution for broad desktop deployment, but I am not quite this skeptical.

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More on Oracle and Open Source

April 24, 2006

A recent ZDNet interview with Jesper Anderson, Oracle’s senior vice president for application strategy, shed some more light on Oracle’s open source strategy. Oracle has a strong preference for the use of Linux internally at Oracle, which Anderson said is driven by Larry Ellison.

“I mean I’ve been in meetings with Larry where people walked in with purchase order requests for big Sun Solaris or HP-UX servers and Larry just looked at it and said ‘Nope, denied’.

And then he turned around and said ‘it’s not the money, you come back to me with a purchase order, same amount or more for Linux, and I’ll approve it right away’,” Anderson said.

It was good to see that this strong preference for Linux usage internally at Oracle is not driven as a cost savings move, but for more strategic reasons.

Anderson also pointed out that “the service component of our software business is increasingly important. The maintenance revenue of our business is a bigger and bigger part of our business.” This seems to be part of why they see open source as an opportunity for them. I am still concerned that Oracle may try to acquire a critical mass of open source companies, which would consolidate too much of the open source ecosystem under one company; however, with the Red Hat acquisition of JBoss, this is becoming less of a concern.

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Open Source in Developing Nations

April 23, 2006

Earlier blogs have discussed the tremendous opportunity that open source could have for developing nations; however, this does not mean thinking of open source as a cheap alternative to Windows. The real opportunity for open source in developing nations is for governments to use open source as a way to grow the local software ecosystem by creating local support and services companies that help organizations more effectively use open source software. Local software companies can also use open source software as a starting point while building value added products on top of it.

Currently, many governments encourage the use of open source software; however, they have few open source developers. The UNU-IIST Global Desktop Project is working to address this issue. The UNU sees that

“Being a ‘passive consumer’ rather than an ‘active participant’ is not in a developing nation’s best interest as both government and business will miss out on what essentially is the power of open source: technological self-determination. Of perhaps more immediate interest are the new businesses that are growing out of the open source phenomenon. Because the underlying technology is freely available, entrepreneurs can build value added products on top of open source software, giving startups quicker time to market while lowering development costs.” (UNU)

The UNU-IIST Global Desktop Project is chartered with growing the number of open source developers in Asia by focusing on improving the open source desktop. It will be interesting to see the impact of open source over the next few years as governments start to focus less on using it as a low cost alternative and more on how they can leverage open source software in order to grow their local software ecosystem.

Open Source and Earth Day

April 22, 2006

I have been seeing quite a few Earth Day technology news stories and blogs over the past few days encouraging people to recycle old electronic equipment. An even better solution is when computer equipment can be reused to help the “needy get nerdy” (Free Geek). Free Geek will take donated computers and other electronic equipment and reuse as much as possible to create computers for those who need them. Materials that cannot be used again are sent only to recycling companies that handle them in an environmentally responsible manner.

The refurbished computers are loaded with open source software (Linux, OpenOffice.org, and more). To become eligible to receive one of these computers along with training on how to use it, a person must spend 24 hours volunteering at Free Geek. The original Free Geek is located in my adopted home town on Portland, OR, and additional Free Geeks have started sprouting up in other locations including my original home state of Ohio (Columbus); Chicago, Illinois; South Bend, Indiana; Olympia, WA; and Ephrata, PA.

Please consider contributing to these organizations by donating equipment or volunteering your time to support both the environment and open source software.

Open Source Bounties

April 20, 2006

Open source bounties are not a new concept, but I had not heard much about bounties lately, so I wanted to bring it up on this blog. Bounties are designed as a way to encourage development of a particular feature within an open source project. In most open source projects, developers contribute to those areas that are of greatest interest; Eric S. Raymond refers to this as “scratching a developer’s personal itch.” To encourage development of a particular feature, organizations and other individuals can offer a bounty usually in the form of a specified amount of money for the addition of a feature meeting certain criteria. As just one example, Novell offered a series of bounties for GNOME a few years ago and others have initiated similar bounties with other projects with mixed success. There are even companies like Bounty Source that provide tools to help facilitate this process. Lately, I have been hearing more about companies funding developers directly. For example, many large software companies, IBM, Intel, and many others, have people on their payroll who are responsible for contributing to open source projects like the Linux kernel.

I suspect that having people on staff to do open source development as a full time job is probably a slightly better solution for most companies. For smaller companies or companies that only want a few features, bounties might be a better option. Please feel free to add a comment to this blog if you have experience using either of these options and want to share the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

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