Stages of Open Source Evolution, by a Community Observer

I’ve been traveling a great deal for some time now. I’ve been to conferences in many places, with very different cultures. I enjoy observing, and learning how each community works. I also try to share my findings with others who have had the same opportunity.

I believe that, in the same way people, generations, and cultures evolve, the FOSS community evolves and changes. Considering how different Open Source is in different parts of the world, it seems like some places already gone through stages that others are going through now. That doesn’t mean all places did it the same way. And there’s no “static metric” or method that is “proved by scientists”all of the observations and conclusions in this paper are based on my own meandering experiences.

Some places are more mature, others are in earlier stages

First stage The community that forms in this stage, which promotes and explains the concepts of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), will serve as the base for next stages. At this stage, the debate is mainly philosophic. Individual people or small groups, work to convince more people, through evangelism and promotion.

There are a lot of questions and comments like:

  • If it’s free, it must be crappy code!

These are the discussion in a fresh new community. This is the case even with those who have used Linux “since SLS/Slackware 2.0/Linux 0.9”. Some members in new communities act more like Dungeon Masters than evangelists.

They are warming up. India, China, and most Latin America countries are still growing, joining communities, but without significant and sustainable results, as of yet. The potential is huge, but it is not established. There are a lot of students who still don’t get it. They think that open source means they would just be working for free.

Second stage The next stage starts when sustainability becomes important. In the first stage, a few evangelizing companies were trying to convince more companies that the future of FOSS is wide open, that the development cycle is shorter and cheaper, and that the community is a great and valuable working force. The evangelizing companies try to explain how costs will go down, and how Return of Investment (ROI) will be rapid.

In the second stage, the other companies start to realize the message is true. And when that happens, more and more people are able to realize their dream of doing the work they love, developing or supporting open source. There are more investments, and there are more cases of success. More non-IT people are aware of what Linux is, that it is something on the computer. There are still problems, but there are more real actions.

I believe Brazil is at this stage. The corporate world is showing some interest. Asking for enthusiasm from this market in Brazil would be too much. The communities work together without the infinite bloody wars. The government’s actions show some maturity and planning. There are no more announcements of migrating the world in 80 days. A lot of serious, complex, professional work is required, plus investments, in terms of both time and money.

Third stage In the next phase, the numbers are impressive. There is a lot of investment, and lots of savings and innovation. There are a big number of enthusiastic open source developers. And there is a good amount and variety of development they are hired to do. People talk about the amount of business, estimates of growth in the market share, and the adoption level.

Europe, in general, looks to be at this stage. For example, France has reported that the government spent 200 million euros, on open source projects alone. Amazingly, the big and small companies have the same share in this investment. Firefox adoption passed 40% in Finland, followed by Germany.

Next stage? So, what’s after the third phase? For me, the fourth stage happens when the companies dedicated to producing and supporting open source are not just viable and profitable, but also generate companies to support them. In the US, some companies now specialize in supporting companies which want to open their projects. The support companies teach about: licensing, how to present the products in the market, how to interact with the community, and even how to create a community around those projects. This amazed me. After all, companies have always seemed to think of communities as a necessary evil, but now they are investing in having a good relationship with them!

Community Sustainability

You must contribute to be part of the community So, does that mean that the US has the most developed open source environment? I don’t think so. One of conferences I participated in there this year was the Open Source Business Conference. Everything on the schedule and in the talks was very buzzword compliance.

But what impressed me most was the fact that several talks, including the keynotes, conveyed this message:

“It is not good to just take your competitor’s code without contributing anything. That will kill your business.”

There were talks about open source business model, who gets to decide about open source licenses, why you should care about contributing code to the ecosystem. Wait a second…. It wasn’t clear why you should contribute code? Apparently not.

During another conference, OSCON, one of the biggest and more famous of the international conferences, the message was slightly different, but with the same objective:

“Products and services are being created based on open source, but they are not open themselves. There is this culture of just saying “We love FOSS” and feeling like all is good. But it doesn’t work like this. If you don’t contribute, the main source runs out of resources. When you become a parasite of your competitor, you will destroy your business.”

Communities must be run by…the community So, the very first stage is essential to sustainable growth. Some companies may even want to buy a community. And they can, but that is not a guarantee that the community is not going to go away. There are certain rules, which may change from community to community, but all of them have very similar dynamics: volunteers are free to work on whatever they want to, and the community is anarchist or has a very soft leadership, where all the volunteers have direct influence in the next steps of the project. If a company cannot accept those rules, buying a community is a waste of money.

So, what you think?

Versão em Português.

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