I’m a fan of open source software, that’s why I work for OSS Watch. When I first started working with open source (about 10 years ago now) the term actually meant more than code was released under an open source licence. It meant there was a community of developers who came together to create a software solution to a shared problem.
However, as the business world has become increasingly aware of open source products as a viable way of creating high quality software for resale, things have begun to change. In some quarters of the open source business domain the importance of an open community in open source software development seems to have been lost.
I subscribe to perhaps the most extreme view of community in open source. That is, I believe that looking after a truly open and healthy community will result in the production of quality code.
Whilst I accept that there are different ways of managing a healthy community, one thing I will not budge on is that a healthy community is one in which everyone has a voice and everyone has free will. Unfortunately, there are many businesses releasing “open source” code where this simply is not the case.
So, when I first read about the Open Solutions Alliance I, like many others, ran off to the Internet to try and understand the implications of this new non-profit open source advocacy group. Unfortunately I found very little commentary other than gut reactions. So I had to do some work, to answer my primary question of “are these folk going to look after the open source community?”
The first thing that worried me was the following quote in a linux.com article:
Klawans [OSA spokesperson] acknowledges that exactly what licenses a member business may or may not use is rather vague. “We didn’t take a stance on it so we could get the launch done,” he says, “but we do know that a business has to be supporting the open source project that their project is based off of. They should be contributing code and effort back into the project and moving it forward.
At a time when the Open Source Initiative are attempting to tackle the problem of licence proliferation I would expect an organisation wanting to strengthen the position of open source in the business world would take the view that only OSI-certified licences are appropriate for its membership.
Whilst this stance on licensing is concerning, it says nothing about the OSA opinion of community since the OSI is concerned with open source licences, not with open communities. So, lets take a look at the OSA website itself, in particular their objectives:
Initially, the OSA will focus on the following activities:
- Defining and promoting tools, frameworks and best practices that facilitate easy deployment and interoperability between member applications;
- Building meta-communities by partnering on projects that involve a variety of companies, communities and individuals to drive innovation and collaboration; and
- Coordinating joint marketing campaigns to raise awareness of business-hardened open source applications and solution suites.
Point 1 is something that should be done within existing development communities. Nothing in the alliance’s web site states they will do this behind closed doors, but then it doesn’t say they will do it in the open as part of the existing communities either.
Point 2 is also something that should be done within existing communities. If there is really a need for such meta-communities then they should be created as open communities in full view of all developers on all affected open source projects. Again, there is nothing on the web site to suggest it will not be done in the open, but I would like to be reassured.
Point 3 can be interpreted in at least two ways, the first (pessimistic interpretation) is that open source products are not business-hardened and so customers should only use solutions provided by OSA members. If this is the impression their marketing materials will give then they will be very harmful to open source as a whole (not to mention untrue). Furthermore, if the implication is that only the OSA members have business-hardened open source solutions then why are they not contributing their business-hardening code back the projects as part of the developer community?
Perhaps I should be generous and assume they actually mean that the OSA members are experts in products that are, as open source products, business-hardened. If this is the case then I can hardly take issue with point 3, let’s see what the future holds.
It is encouraging to find the following in the OSA code of ethics:
[Members agree to]
Remain committed to open source business practices including supporting user and developer communities, and maintaining access to source code.
So, with my optimistic hat on I can assume that the OSA truly intend to operate in a fashion that is supportive of community development models. I therefore proceed to wonder why organisations like The Apache Software Foundation have not been invited to join up. After all, many of the initial member companies use ASF software in their products.
[NOTE: to my knowledge the ASF has not been invited, since I am a member of the ASF I should be aware of this if it has happened, but perhaps I missed something]
In order to proceed, I’ll assume it’s an oversight that the ASF has not been invited to join. Exploring the membership details on the OSA site I discover that there are three classes of membership, two of which cost money and are for profit making organisations. The third one does not cost money and is for non-profit organisations.
So, open source foundations can join up. However, their membership level affords very little influence on the actions of the OSA. Such members do not get a vote and they can’t sit on the board. Of course, they are still expected to provide the same 20% FTE of resources that profit making organisations are expected to provide – quite a drain on the resources of a non-profit organisation that is already expending a great deal of resources creating the software at the core of the other OSA members products.
The non-profit membership of the OSA doesn’t sound too good/useful to me.
But then again, being on the “inside” of a potentially closed group, even as an observer, can help open things up considerably. At least such members would be able to report back to their own, open, communities. Well, you’d have thought so wouldn’t you? Lets check the membership agreement…
If Member fails to meet the responsibilities of its membership class, the Member may, at the discretion of the Board of Directors, have its membership terminated.
OK, I accept there there needs to be some protection in place. Nobody wants a rogue in the ranks. However, I’m concerned that it is the Board that make the decision to boot people, not the membership. Recall that only commercial, paying members, can vote for or sit on the board (in fact only the top level paying members can sit on the board).
Am I just being paranoid?
Let’s look at what it is that members are supposed to do with their 0.2 FTE contribution in order to avoid being booted. One of the responsibilities of membership is to Express public support for the OSA and the OSA website. Or to put it another way, a member can be thrown out for publicly taking issue with anything the OSA say or do.
What worries me is that non-profit members have no influence over the strategy of the OSA, yet they are required to support that strategy, even if they disagree. Of course, they can leave and so not be bound by the requirement to support the OSA.
I will be watching the Open Solutions Alliance with a great deal of interest. What I want to know is, just how open is the Open Solutions Alliance going to be? If it is open, the OSA could be a great thing for open source. Some coordinated marketing operations (optimistic interpretation of their third objective) is certainly needed within open source and I would welcome it with open arms. But…
If it intends to be truly open, why was it created behind closed doors and why is its structure designed to protect its paying members but not the non-profit organisations that are the guardians of the very software on which those members base their businesses?