Innovation through Open Development

In my last post I argue that open development can both reduce costs and improve quality. Today, Steve Lee pointed me to an article in Business Week that illustrates the point very well.

The article identifies Ken Saunders, a 41-year-old, legally blind volunteer for Mozilla as a prime example of the kind of third party contributions that are key to the success of open development projects:

Saunders is among hundreds of people who donate time and skills to Mozilla, the Mountain View (Calif.) company that releases Firefox and other open-source software. Even as Mozilla’s internal staff has grown to 250, from 15 in 2005, an army of volunteers still contributes about 40% of the company’s work, which ranges from tweaks to the programming code to designing the Firefox logo.

Innovation in open development can happen within the core project team, but it can also happen at the edges, where people with different objectives and interests see value in the projects outputs. According to the Business Week article Mike Beltzner, who runs the Firefox project, says that open development projects need to “allow people to innovate and to explore and [give them] the freedom to do what they want along those edges—that’s where innovation tends to happen in startling and unexpected ways.”

The article also discusses some less successful attempts at open development, highlighting some of the good and bad approaches to rewarding and recognising volunteer contributions. A recent case study on TexGen, published by OSS Watch, illustrates how the open development model can be used to apply to even the smallest niche area project.