Category Archives: Discussion – How to Choose the Best License for Your Open Source Software Project

You need sound coding skills to create good software, but the success of an open source project can also depend on something much less glamorous: your choice of software license.

Last week I spoke to Paul Rubens of about the issues that need to be considered when deciding which licence to use when releasing your code, including why a licence is necessary, the varieties of Free and Open Source Software licences, and how you provide licenses for the non-software parts of your project.

You can read the full article at

Open Source Junction 3: mobile and cloud, Oxford 20-21 March 2012

Mobile technologies have become an integral part of our lives. Research indicates that by 2015 80% of people accessing the Internet will be doing so from mobile devices. Mobile applications and services are changing the way we engage with the web, and to a certain extent with each other.

At the same time, cloud technologies deliver better and better IT services. From email and content storage to complex computing and development platforms, users can access clouds via simple browsers, thus eliminating the need for end-user applications and high-power computers.

In UK Higher Education, cloud solutions are an integral part of a JISC programme aimed at helping universities and colleges deliver better efficiency and value for money through the development of shared services. As pointed out by Rachel Bruce, JISC’s Innovation Director for digital infrastructure, cloud solutions are increasingly attractive to HE institutions. They allow universities to reduce environmental and financial costs, share the load of maintaining a physical infrastructure, be flexible and operate on a pay-as-you-go basis, access data and applications from any location, and make scientific experiments easier to reproduce. Continue reading

Build a better mousetrap

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” as Wikipedia informs me Ralph Waldo Emerson never quite said. The point – that real innovation sells itself – remains true today. Indeed it could be argued that the average consumer is more engaged with the heartbeat of technological innovation now than ever before, with software releases making headlines among the more traditional stories of war and celebrity.

Emerson’s non-quote does raise a question, however. How do we identify technology which is better? With mouse-traps there are some fairly obvious metrics relating to mouse mortality and cheese preservation, but not all inventions are as easy to benchmark. The last few weeks have seen anouncements of upgrades to the world’s two most commonly used smartphone operating systems: Apple’s iOS (version 5) and Google’s Android (version 4). Each brings a raft of new features, although in both cases it has to be said that these new features are no longer as core to the operation of the device as innovations in earlier versions. Voice-operated search and facial recognition are nice, but hardly essential elements of a mobile computer, at least for now. Perhaps lost in the combative comparisons deployed by proponents of each OS is the fact that a genuinely key ability – web browsing – is implemented on both platforms using essentially the same code: the Web Kit open source project. While newer functionality is added by Google and Apple to differentiate the competing products, it pays them to cooperate on key, unavoidable elements of their offerings. Given this, it’s fair to repeat the question – how do we identify real innovation? The newer differentiating features appear to be the cutting edge of endeavour, but their very newness is a demonstration that – up to now at least – they have not been essential elements of the technology in question. Some of them will die away despite their novelty, having never truly improved the invention that they embellish. Like a cheese grater on your mouse trap, it’s possibly a nice idea and undoubtedly novel, but how useful is it really? Only time will tell, and in the meantime better springs, and better browsers, are being developed.

So perhaps the question needs to be: “looking back at innovations that have proved to be key, how do they tend to develop?” Using the answer to this, we might be able to form some techniques for looking at our cutting-edge-but-possibly-pointless innovations and making guesses about their eventual utility. We might even be able to identify over-arching strategies for conducting and rewarding innovation…

Here we get into an argument that flared up earlier this month, when a video of Francis Gurry, the Director General of the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) back in June was discovered by the internet commentating community. Gurry was speaking to sum up his views on a debate which had just taken place on ‘Accelerating Growth and Development’ in relation to invention and intellectual property. Gurry’s argument was seemingly  summed up by the headline on the BoingBoing article which drew it to the internet’s attention: “WIPO boss: the Web would have been better if it was patented and its users had to pay license fees”. Reading the article, though, even the quote that BoingBoing had pulled failed to use that emotive word ‘better’:

Intellectual property is a very flexible instrument. So, for example, had the world wide web been able to be patented, and I think that is a question in itself, perhaps the amount of investment that has gone into or would be able to go into basic science would be different. If you had found a very flexible licensing model, in which the burden for the innovation of the world wide web had been shared across the whole user community in a very fair and reasonable manner, with a modest contribution for everyone for this wonderful innovation, it would have enabled enormous investment in turn in further basic research. And that is the sort of flexibility that is built into the intellectual property system. It is not a rigid system.

Reaction to the video from proponents of open content and open source across the internet was voluble and aggravated. Gurry was accused of being ideologically indoctrinated and blinkered, tied to anachronistic models of IP registration and exploitation even in the face of the incredible growth and success of the web largely without the intervention of these models. In fact though, the most that Gurry says is that the web would have been ‘different’. Taken in the context of the statements which preceded it (and which you can hear by downloading the video), in which the value of the traditional IP systems had been questioned repeatedly, Gurry’s statements do not really support the distillation they were given, and which caused so much anger. He is trying to argue that the web could have grown within more traditional licensing structures. Whether he is right about this or not, he is not claiming here that it would have been ‘better’ under those circumstances.

The anger and confusion here are natural, though. The battle lines between proponents of the traditional and the more ‘open’ approaches to innovation (and here we should note that the buzz phrase ‘open innovation’ often itself refers to deeply traditional IP exploitation patterns) have long been drawn, and the forces on both sides are keen to tackle and destroy the arguments of their opponents wherever they see them. The web is often perceived  – with much justification – as a triumph of innovation outside the traditional IP exploitation framework. To hear someone perceived as being part of the old-guard even discussing it can seem presumptuous to some ears. Yet in reality the implied dichotomy here is simplistic. The open licensing movements themselves are underpinned by the arcane operations of traditional licensing and exploitation. While they may give these operations an innovative twist, they could not be enforced or defended without them. Conversely, Gurry’s example of why  the patent regime is beneficial fails to address the criticisms of openness proponents. He points to the publication framework implicit in the current patent system, and makes the comparison between the saxophone – which has fully documented design documents available thanks to its having been patented – and the violin – where many secrets of producing the greatest instruments have been lost through secrecy and the passage of time. This critique – while interesting – is almost wholly inappropriate as a defence of the current system in opposition to more open models. In the modern case, both models involve complete publication – the distinction lies in how benefits are reaped from exploitation and by whom.

Given the frequent failures of either side in this debate to engage with what the other is actually saying – illustrated by this sad tale –  it’s not surprising that telling which innovations are better remains hard. While ideology is important, it can often obscure our view of what actually matters to most people: how many mice are killed (or indeed captured).

Open Source Junction 2 ready to go

Open Source Junction 2 is just a few days away and I’m pleased to say that the event is now fully booked. We have a great mix of speakers and delegates from all sectors and I’m confident that the workshop will be a great success. We will tweet and live blog during the event, so those of you who couldn’t make it to Wolfson feel free to keep an eye on #osjmob11coveritlive, and other social media activity gathered on posterous.

The power of community – open source and otherwise

I broke my arm while ice-skating with the kids back in February half-term. For the first few days and weeks after the accident, life was turned upside-down. I couldn’t dress myself or butter a slice of toast – how was I going to look after two children, run a household and hold down a job?

I need not have worried. My circle of friends immediately took over, bringing round meals, taking care of the children and ferrying me to and from the hospital. They rearranged their lives to accommodate our activities, cheerfully dividing the swimming and ballet runs among themselves. I didn’t even have to ask. My employer also made life easier by being flexible and allowing me, once I was well enough, to work from home if necessary, and never putting any pressure on me.

Of course my husband carried the biggest load, but he calmly accepted the situation and just got on with it, almost always with patience and good humour. He did much of the childcare, all of the driving and made the packed lunches – though didn’t take to cooking in the way that I hoped he might! All this while doing his own job, renovating the house and planning a move to Australia – but that’s another story, perhaps for a future blog.

Mercifully, I wasn’t totally helpless for very long. Pretty quickly I managed to find a way of doing almost everything. My methods were unorthodox but they worked: I could open toothpaste with my good hand, while clamping the tube between my knees; I folded washing using one hand and my teeth; I anchored a loaf of bread with the elbow of my broken arm so that I could slice it. (It was either that or gnaw the end of the loaf.) I became quite proud of my ability to improvise and master the myriad practical challenges that daily life now presented. Like a toddler, I was fiercely independent about doing things for myself – though, thanks to the fact that I hadn’t broken my dominant arm, could feed myself less messily.

So, the experience, while I wouldn’t wish to repeat it, has had its benefits. It has reminded me how lucky I am to have the friends and family I have: although I’m pretty resilient, I could not have managed without them. I’ve also realised that even in good times we all draw strength from each other. In short, it has underlined the value and power of the community I have around me.

Here at OSS Watch, we are interested in the communities surrounding open source projects, which are no less vital to the survival of those projects. For more information on the importance of the open source community, read our briefing documents How to build an open source community and A guide to participating in an open source community.

Open Source Junction 1: cross-platform mobile apps – the extras

Following the publication of Michelle Pauli’s blog report on our recent event, we are pleased to bring you a series of mini-interviews with speakers and attendees from both industry and academia. The interviews give a flavour of the range of interests represented at the event, and an insight into why people came and whether their expectations were met. Enjoy.

Abi James wants to learn more about how open source could bring assistive technology tools to mobile platforms.
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EA Draffan has learned more and networked more at this event than has been possible in weeks of desk work.
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Gabriel Hanganu tells us why OSS Watch decided to run this
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Julian Harty is curious about open source communities and is enjoying networking with key people who can help him in his work at eBay.
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Iris Lapinski tells us about Apps for Good, a technology charity that helps young people to create apps that change their world.
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Mark Johnson is exploring mobile development and has already met people he could collaborate with.
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Mike Jones describes Mobile Campus Assistant, which provides useful information for students.
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Nick Allott describes the challenge of creating web apps that can talk to each other securely.
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Ross Gardler explains that one of the main aims behind this event is to get a dialogue going between the academic and commercial sectors.
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Roland Harwood demonstrates how the principles of open innovation are being applied to business.
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Tim Fernando tells us about the Molly mobile web apps project and invites more people to get involved.
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Stephen Walli explains that as open source projects get more mature, they need to manage their intellectual property more professionally.
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OSS Watch Open Source Junction, Oxford, 28–29 March 2011

This guest post was written by Michelle Pauli, who also wrote the live blog at Open Source Junction.

‘More people pooling more resources in new ways is the history of civilisation’
Howard Rheingold

Open source software features, in some form, in just about every mobile device. This has created huge opportunities for innovation, communication and collaboration, and there is wide interest in mobile apps in the developer, consumer and business world. Yet, so far, there have been few attempts to bring together commercial and academic developers working on mobile apps in order to build partnerships based on lessons learned from open source development.

Open Source Junction, with its goal of building a sustainable community of stakeholders interested in mobile technologies, did just that. The first in a series of planned events, this two-day meeting focusing on cross-platform mobile apps gathered participants from all sectors to not only discuss innovation and collaboration but also take the first steps towards making it happen.

Open innovation

The 21st-century model of an organisation is ‘default to open’, declared Roland Harwood of 100% Open, citing Wikileaks as a topical example. Setting the scene for the networking elements of the event, he explained that open innovation is less about the ‘what’ than the ‘who’. It recognises that not all the smartest people work for us, so we need to move from the conceptual position that value lies in what we hold in our heads to the understanding that value lies in who we have around us. Or, as 100% Open put it, ‘innovating with partners by sharing the risks and rewards’.

Quoting the writer JG Ballard, Roland suggested that ‘the future reveals itself through the peripheral’ and said that we all need to be better at spotting what’s coming from outside our own sector. ‘Talk to lots of people and don’t stay in your own bubbles,’ he urged.

He had some powerful examples of companies that had opened up and reaped the rewards. These ranged from Lego’s inspired tolerance of copyright infringement that has made its Mindstorms range such a success, to Local Motors, a car sales company where customers have a hand in building the cars (think ‘beer and welding evenings’). He also namechecked Mozilla and Android to demonstrate that open source is mainstream business now.

A slight note of cynicism entered the discussion when Roland was asked if, with some of the ‘customer-led innovation projects’ he described, there was an element of companies trying to get customers to do their marketing work for them. ‘It’s a fine line,’ he admitted. ‘But it is also possible to have a more two-way relationship with customers so that it is not just a one-way street based on selling.’

In any case, with open innovation, coming up with ideas is rarely the problem. The hard work lies in making them happen and the challenge is to not only recognise a good idea (which is crucial at the start of the process) but also to recognise the effort involved in taking it forward.

Culture clash?

One of the reasons why implementing a good idea can be hard work comes down to clashes of cultures. There can be inertia and distrust between innovators and corporate bodies and collaboration can be perceived as risky. Roland described the ‘airlock solution’ that his organisation has pioneered to reassure both parties that ideas can be discussed in a confidential and ‘safe’ space.

Gabriel Hanganu, community development manager at OSS Watch, brought the issue home to the particular audience at Open Source Junction by focusing in on academic/business partnerships. He cited some fascinating surveys, including one conducted among UK academics by the Advanced Institute of Management Research, which found that academics are five times more likely to be entrepreneurial than the general public.

Another, a 2010 survey by UK Innovation Research Centre, found that most academics engage with industry to further their research. They are also interested in the impact of their research – its practical applications. Few academics engage with industry for purely financial gain and, increasingly, they are looking to build research networks.

On the industry side, there is a general distrust of academic business ability: it is felt that academics cannot, and do not want to, conduct outsourced research delivered in short timeframes. But, said Gabriel, industry needs to accept universities as equal partners, valued for their strengths.

For Gabriel, the key is practice-led transformation: it is not enough just to change perception of each other’s sector or have policies to work towards a common goal – you need open development to create the change from within.

An example of this kind of creative partnership in action came from the University of Oxford’s John Lyle, with his presentation on Webinos. This is a European Union project to produce a cross-device runtime environment for web applications. The idea is that fragmentation increases when you move from mobile to TV, laptops, navigation devices, etc. – at the moment, you can’t play a game on your mobile, walk into your house and seamlessly transfer your playing experience to your TV, for example. Webinos aims to resolve this by delivering an open web platform to allow apps to run across mobile, home media, PC and in-car devices.

Some hard questions were asked about how similar Webinos is to other projects around open web apps and the feasibility of trying to generalise a user interface, but the really exciting thing about Webinos is its success in bringing together a wide, pan-European, cross-sector consortium. It consists of 22 founding members from nine countries and the industrial partners include Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Deutsche Telecom and BMW.

As well as Webinos’s founding partnership, John said that the project is committed to creating ‘a worldwide open source community driving and using the results’.

How will that be achieved? Although 15% of Webinos’s funding has been earmarked for community-building, John was warned by Gabriel that ‘in our experience people talk a lot about building community but not a lot happens until the end, when funding has run out and it’s all unsustainable. At OSS Watch we advise people to think about sustainability right from the start.’


So, given that the aim of Open Source Junction is to build a community, what does that mean and how can it be done?

Ross Gardler, manager of OSS Watch and vice-president of community development at the Apache Software Foundation, tackled the topic head on and pinpointed the importance of a governance model: it is the structure that underpins how decisions are made, who makes them and how; conflict resolution and sustainability.

There are two extremes of open source governance: benevolent dictatorship and meritocracy, with the main difference showing up in how conflicts are resolved. Benevolent dictatorship requires ‘genius’, including very strong interpersonal skills; meritocracies do not have that problem, but they can stagnate if not managed well.

But, whichever you go for, said Ross, ‘it is extremely hard to build a community. So get on with building it and stop agonising about it!’

According to Stephen Walli, technical director of the Outercurve Foundation, the ‘campfire rule’ is that we’ve understood communities ‘since you had a campfire and I wanted to sit beside it’ and so open source communities are nothing new. But, again, the governance system needs to be resolved early on.

It is also crucial to make it as simple as possible for people to get involved: ‘The magic can happen on day one but you have to tell people what you want and how they can do it – you have to make it easy for them,’ he said.

Businesses often look to foundations as IP packagers and liability firewalls so they can grow their community more easily. The nine biggest open source projects in the world are based in foundations, Stephen added.

Sander van der Waal of OSS Watch offered some guidance on easing the open development process and advised that there are two essential collaboration tools: information and communication. A good issue-tracker system is crucial to both of these, along with a functioning mailing list.

The positive impact that successful community-building can offer was amply demonstrated by Scott Wilson from CETIS at the University of Bolton. He described how the Wookie widget project started out as a tiny deliverable worked on by a small number of people from one organisation funded from one source for a fixed time. Thanks to its entry into the Apache Incubator, it is now a viable, sustainable piece of open source software and the result is better software than they could have created alone, more interesting research opportunities, far greater impact and a wealth of new partnerships. It has even made money, and did so quickly.

But what can also damage a community beyond repair? Filthy lucre, said Ross. ‘Money ruins everything! Do not have money inside your community! It does not have any place there. It has to be an even playing field. If someone can buy influence then your community is broken,’ he emphasised.

Business sense

While money may cause problems within the governance of a community, it’s also the reason that open source communities need a business model to be sustainable.

Nick Allott, founder of NquiringMinds, raised some eyebrows in the audience with his claim that ‘code is a liability not an asset’, because, as Ross concurred, maintaining software costs money. ‘You have to account for that even if it is open source,’ he said. ‘Someone has to fix the bugs and get the servers back up and all sorts of things and that costs money. You have to generate some money and so someone somewhere has to have a business model. It might be to make money or it might be to reduce costs. If you do not do that then you will fail.’

What kinds of business models are out there? Quite a few, it seems. Potential business models include advertising, dual licensing and packaging for hardware and services (such as warranties, support or customisations). In the mobile app space, people are making money from app sales, upgrades and in-app sales, advertising and server-side revenue. However, the mobile app market is too young for anyone to really know the future – we don’t know what will be commoditised and what the healthy revenue streams will be in five years.

Nick took a look at some of the murkier methods used by bigger business in the open source space, based on growing the ecosystem, controlling the ecosystem and devaluing competitors’ assets. ‘Open source is not always nice and friendly,’ he warned. ‘There are ways to make revenue from open source, but the big players play a different game – to reduce costs and take out competition. Open source can have profound ecosystem effects: you can kill business overnight.’

Of course, there can also be partnerships that are not based on profit. Iris Lapinski of the educational charity Apps for Good offered an inspiring take on collaborative mobile app development with Transit. It’s a Bengali translation app that came out of a course run in Tower Hamlets with a group of girls who realised that there was a problem with communication between their English-speaking teachers and Bengali-speaking parents. Apps for Good brings in experts, from business executives to designers and developers, to work with the young mobile entrepreneurs on a voluntary basis.

Native v web…

Transit will be a native app, unlike most of the apps featured in case studies during the event. The native app v web app dilemma was a thread running through many discussions.

According to Tim Fernando from Oxford University Computing Services, who spoke about the very neat Mobile Oxford app and its associated Molly open source project, ‘If you are working in education, native apps are quite a dangerous route to go down because of renewing code each year, app store commitments and so on.’

App store terms and conditions are certainly an issue for open source developers. However, when asked ‘Are app stores evil?’, Rowan Wilson of OSS Watch took a measured line.

‘They are not evil by default – arguably Maemo repositories were the first app stores,’ he said. ‘The concept itself is not necessarily undermining to open source. Where they are not the sole channel of distribution the problems are significantly reduced. But they do introduce a new form of fragmentation and it can mean that you do not necessarily look outside the one marketplace you see when you get your device.’

Despite the appeal for developers of the web app over the native app, it was also recognised that apps for the iPhone appeal as a ‘shiny new thing’ to vice-chancellors.

Mike Jones from the University of Bristol, whose MyMobileBristol web app provides time- and location-sensitive information for students (such as the nearest available computer terminal and the next bus to the halls of residence), commented that ‘people ask “is it on the app store?”’ and it doesn’t need to be but they think that to access something it has to be on the app store. There are also people in the university who worry that the university does not have a brand presence on the app store.’

Where next?

One of the most important elements of the event was the ‘speed dating’ session, in which participants introduced themselves to each other and sought synergies between skills and needs and projects. It was the first step in developing the nascent Open Source Junction community and a number of potential partnerships were identified immediately.

In the closing session, OSS Watch’s Gabriel Hanganu identified three key areas for the future of Open Source Junction – open development, sustainability and marketing – and said that ‘depending on how these are addressed, the community will live or die’. Given the enthusiastic response to the event and the firm prospect of future collaboration, the community’s life force is already looking strong.

If you enjoyed reading this report, you may also like to see Michelle’s mini-interviews with some of the attendees.

Further reading


Open Source Junction blog (including live blog, slides and photos)
Programme and speaker bios

100% Open
Apps for Good
Mobile Oxford
Outercurve Foundation

Further information from OSS Watch:

App stores and openness
Free and open source software in mobile devices
Open innovation in software
How to build an open source community
Roles in open source projects
Wookie: a case study in sustainability

UK Government Open Standards Survey

There’s no date on his introductory post, but Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, has provided an opportunity for us to state which open standards for IT we want the UK government to use. This takes the form of an on-line SurveyMonkey survey that is open until 20 May 2011.

Government must be better connected to the people it serves and partners who can work with it – especially small businesses, voluntary and community organisations. Government ICT must play a fundamental role in making life easier and I want to ensure that it does.

One of our first goals is to organise Government data and systems using an agreed set of standards that make our ICT more open, cheaper and better connected.

If you’re a business or community organisation, helping us choose the right standards will make it easier for you to do business with Government.  It will also help us open up data, better informing your decisions, and hopefully prompting innovation.

There’s a lot of detail in the very long list of obtuse standard numbers, but fortunately a mechanism is provided to skip sections you aren’t interested in. Otherwise you can vote on each standard on a scale between mandatory and don’t use. Refreshingly for a survey, there are spaces for you to add your own thoughts (though you can’t add each on a new line as requested).

I spotted couple of typos and more seriously, the Microsoft originated ISO/IEC 29500 Office Open XML is incorrectly called ‘Open Office XML. This is bound to lead to confusion as the alternatively listed ISO/IEC 26300:2006 Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) standard was originally implemented in OpenOffice (and is now implemented by LibreOffice).

Open standards play well with open source software developement and we encourage you to take the survey. However do bear in mind the government’s past record in implementing open technology policies. You might also want to look at Glyn Moody’s related post about the Government’s definition of open standards provided in the procurement policy note.

Lower the barriers to entry

Getting new users actively involved in your open source project is one of the most important aspects of community development. A healthy open source project welcomes new contributors of all kinds and makes it easy for them to contribute. Prospective contributors feel welcome and are guided towards their first contribution, whatever their skills are. My OSS Watch colleague Steve Lee pointed out the website of LibreOffice; they managed to do this very well.

Care for your users

It’s very unlikely that any new contributor to the project will not have used the software before starting to contribute. Getting people to contribute therefore starts with helping your users. LibreOffice has a lot of channels to assist users in getting started and getting the most out of the software, ranging from mailing lists to IRC channels, FAQ and documentation. Having a dedicated and clearly marked ‘Get Help’ section on your website will help new users to get going and feel welcome.

It’s not all about code

As we’ve discussed before, contributing to an open source project is about much more than just writing code. Make sure you highlight all the different ways in which your users can get involved in your project. LibreOffice provides a nice example of how to do this. All of their documentation carry a Creative Commons licence, so don’t be afraid to copy from their pages, as long as you make sure you acknowledge them and stick a compatible CC licence on your documentation as well.

Lower the barriers to entry

So let’s say you would like to get more developers on your project (and you should!). It can be quite difficult for developers to know what they can do to help out. Having that clearly marked out is therefore important. A first code contribution is usually an easy hack like removing dead code or adding a unit test. Some people even argue that you should leave some of those easy hacks in, just to tempt potential contributors to fix it! If you can, list the easy hacks on your wiki, like the LibreOffice project has done.

But my project is really small!

Especially when your project is small, it’s important to involve your users and get more contributors. You may not have all the channels (like mailling lists and forums and IRC and FAQs) available from the start, but you can improve this gradually. For example, if your project is hosted on GoogleCode or SourceForge, it is really easy to set up a wiki so you have the framework in place. That is an easy win and will encourage users to contribute. And don’t feel afraid to ask people to contribute. If they are providing a good solution to a common problem on a mailing list, ask them if they’d put it on the wiki.

So check out the LibreOffice website for inspiration, and while you’re there, make sure you download their software. They launched their first release today!