TransferSummit – Industry and the Open Source Community

Buildings that last are always open

How is the open source model like Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre? Ross Gardler, in his introduction to the TransferSummit conference this June, put forth this theory: the Sheldonian, Christopher Wren’s greatest early work, required a huge range of transferred expertise and what was then the latest technology in its construction. A swath of different individuals’ skills were employed to produce a cutting-edge building that, finished in 1668, is still used today. The end result was not only a magnificent building but also new construction and architectural techniques shared with the craftsmen brought in. Ross’s point is that the University of Oxford looked outwards to leading figures in construction and architecture to fulfil their needs – and, with open source, this relationship between academic and business interest continues to flourish today.

A shared future

Traditionally, universities have been seen as research institutions not unduly concerned with value. But Ross hoped that at TransferSummit, those working in academic institutions and non-profit communities, and those working in industry, could show, over the course of two days, how both can work together to their mutual benefit.

These are exciting times to be involved with open source. As many mentioned over the two days of TS, the average person encounters Linux ten times a day without even knowing it, all thanks to a quiet revolution in industrial attitudes to the open source community. Many talks recounted the difficult journeys taken by companies over the last ten years, learning how and why to use open source software to deliver the most innovative products to their consumers. If companies are to produce their own Sheldonians they must look to open source.

Why industry is becoming more open

Matthew Langham spoke of his own experience of combining two very different worlds – the corporate and the open source. He remembers back in 2000 the difficulties he had as a software developer in getting his boss to embrace a new, apparently insane business plan: ‘We give away our code for free?’ But Matthew, who now runs a company connecting the corporate and open source worlds, explained the benefits of going open source: the strength the company would derive from allowing other people to improve its code, the advances made in their software that they could never have come up with alone, and, ultimately, how much more use their software would enjoy by being offered in this way. Open source provided their company with hugely increased exposure, and allowed them to make a good profit by offering support for their freely available products. Having proved the commercial viability of going open source, Matthew started suggesting these benefits to other companies, inspiring them to have a go too. He has found it easy to persuade them to try it out, but perhaps one of the biggest challenges has been getting them to admit that they do so. Phone companies, big banks and other organisations all embraced open source at a developmental level but were wary of admitting it to their employers and certainly of being evangelical about its benefits.

Of course, this is set to change. Matthias Stuermer’s talk investigated the ways in which Nokia has been playing with open source and Linux for the last ten years and how since 2005, they have been openly working with the open source community. One benefit of that relationship came about when the Nokia 770 was hacked to allow the use of flash cards as RAM – something Nokia’s own developers thought couldn’t work. They were then able to adapt the design to allow the feature.

An army of R&D

This ability to innovate as a community is also something that Phil Andrews spoke about. If SourceForge were to pay, as R&D, the 50,000 people they have involved in their community, the annual wages bill would come to £4.5 billion. He also pointed out that the number of coding errors generated within an open source community is much smaller than those produced by a closed company.

This change in approach can be seen outside of coding, too, as Roland Harwood from 100%Open pointed out in his keynote speech. His organisation encourages businesses to look at sharing their skills with very different industries, investigating how technology can be deployed in new and unrelated contexts. This use of ‘open innovation’ has led to companies such as McLaren F1 having their software used in hospitals and in air traffic control towers. Roland pointed out other examples – organisations like Virgin Atlantic embracing an unofficial group of around 50,000 customers who started their own community analysing the quality of Virgin’s services, from the website to their planes’ seating. By reaching out to and working with this community, they improved their services at an estimated 10% of the cost of doing so in-house.

But why should the open source community get into bed with business?

If the benefits of open source are clear for business, another question was raised and dealt with during the two days of TS  – what’s in it for the open source community?

Certainly, Simon Phipps fears that unscrupulous business practices can often destroy what makes open source brilliant. Having worked with Java and Sun Microsystems before becoming a board member for the Open Source Initiative, Simon has seen both the good and the bad of open source companies. He believes that the nature of open source is being undermined by some companies taking the benefits of others’ innovation without giving anything up of their own – such companies declare themselves to be ‘open core’ , which he sees as a euphemism for traditional closed software.

To Simon, in fact, such businesses are reptiles without souls or ethics. They can’t embrace the principle of openness for any reason other than to benefit from the growing marketing power of the term ‘open source’. They use open source as a way of making short-term savings rather than to generate long-term freedoms.

Companies must be honest

Some of these issues were dealt with by Gerv Markham from the Mozilla Foundation, which focuses on ensuring that no one company has control of the internet. Mozilla has an unusual corporate structure – a charity that wholly owns a number of conventional companies. Gerv has many suggestions as to how companies can be ethically involved with the open source community – for instance, Mozilla makes no distinction in worth between their paid members and those who volunteer. Even one of their security managers was not allowed into the Mozilla security discussion group until eight weeks after he had been hired – he had to prove his worth to the whole community, not just those who paid his salary, before he made the grade. Markham is also deeply aware of the importance of having a clear and transparent licensing scheme. It took many years to refine, but now users of Mozilla’s code get the choice of three different licences.

He also understands the ethical difficulties inherent in persuading volunteers to sign over copyright to an organisation, though, as Rowan Wilson pointed out, in his talk, that assignment of copyright is not the only way to manage IP in open source. Still, many companies have betrayed their volunteers’ trust by deciding that their ‘open source experiment’ has failed and absorbing the work of outsiders as they turn back into closed companies. Companies must avoid abusing open sourcers’ trust if they are to succeed in the open source world.

How companies are learning

The issue of earning and preserving trust is familiar to many previously closed developers attempting to make the transition to open source. Matthew Langham mentioned that it took about a year for his company to become welcome in the open source community, and that many large companies just don’t get how it works, expecting it to be an online pool of free employees. David Woollard, a senior software engineer at NASA, encountered similar difficulties. Only in 2005, where NASA used the skills of two big open source developers already on their staff (Sean Kelly and Chris Mattaham), did the necessary cultural shift begin within their section of NASA – and it took five years until they were finally able to enter the Apache Incubator in January 2010. The largest problem they faced during this time was persuading their own lawyers that, as publically funded organisations, they should be giving away their resources (i.e. their code) for free. The next problem was persuading contributors to mix in. They dealt with this by creating a clear framework to define how to get involved, what is expected of contributors and what they can expect in return. Finally, this transparency is reaping its reward – their community is starting to take off.

Open source communities – the future of society?

But the future of open source, as discussed at TransferSummit, should soar far beyond its relationship to industry. As Simon Phipps argued, in inspiring terms, it could well be the future of society. In the past, we have been accustomed to a societal model involving a group of individuals centred around one powerful ruler, or, after the Industrial Revolution, one large organisation, whether a company or a parliament. Open source removes the need for this central figure, allowing all members of a society to contribute in different ways. But if the idea is potentially so revolutionary, how should the open source community ensure that it is strong enough to achieve its ends?

As Steven Pemberton’s keynote on the first morning of the summit made clear, a good open source community will involve everyone, not just coders. After good content, what users want most from the websites they visit is good usability. Programmers, typically, cannot achieve good usability alone – they need designers, writers and testers to create a new structural way of ensuring that open software addresses the needs of the general public. Like the Sheldonian, any successful open source project will need to draw on a broad spectrum of expertise.

Led by none, led by all

Bertrand Delacretaz acknowledged this in his own talk, explaining the studies he has made as to who is most involved in various open source projects. Showing visual maps of people’s involvement, he demonstrated that it was rarely the originator of a project who was the most influential – as the project grew, so did the community’s input and influence, drawing it away from the originating individual.

Mark Johnson looked in detail at the process of how an open source community comes together and develops in the talk he gave about his involvement with the Moodle project. Beginning with his initial experiences of working on simple bug fixes, he told his audience how the satisfaction of working within a community and getting recognition for his work got him hooked on using their issue tracks and forums to contribute more and more.

Becoming part of a bigger world

Excited, valued community involvement was also a preoccupation for Noirin Shirley, employed by Google but talking about her work with Apache. Given a good community of forums, bug trackers and credit always being given where it’s due, a project will inevitably be stronger. Noirin argued that to get people involved in your project, the best rules of open source communities are actually much like those of kindergarten – share your toys, don’t be selfish and always be generous with praise. Also, don’t expect people to dive into the complexities straight away. She pointed out that it’s wise not to bother fixing the simplest bugs in your code, but to leave them for the community, so that – as was the case with Mark and Moodle – someone else will fix them, derive confidence and satisfaction from doing so, and get to grips with understanding the more challenging aspects of your project.

From military tech to the schoolyard

Given a strong, multi-skilled community, there is very little to which an open source project cannot turn its hand. Miles Berry hinted at the breadth of the spectrum by arguing the usefulness of greater open source involvement in schools, not just in dedicated ICT lessons. Berry made a commanding case for the positive impact open source could have in all classrooms, from geography lessons using open source gps software, to language work using Moodle. His case was greatly strengthened by the fact that he had masterminded such a broad, school-wide adoption of open source software at the St Ives Prep School, where he was formerly headmaster.

Code speaks louder than words

What the two days of TransferSummit made abundantly clear is that with a strong community, a mixture of disciplines and a willingness to embrace and pursue innovation, open source can do just about anything. But as Bertrand Delacretaz argued, its potential best displayed not in the giving of talks but in the writing of code. So the most exciting glimpse at what the future might hold for open source happened during the Birds of a Feather meetings – informal, community-led gatherings at which attendees and speakers exchanged ideas, learned from each other and arranged to pool their projects. From visual communication tools for those who don’t speak the same language, to ideas as to how universities can better reach out to industry, the groups’ advice to each other showed conclusively that for open source communities, the sky’s the limit.