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Competition and Open Source Projects

Posted by editor on October 14, 2009 at 7:48 AM PDT

Masoud Kalili has been thinking recently about competition as it applies within the open source realm, versus how it applies within the corporate business realm. In his recent blog post Competition is good but to what extent and at what expense... Masoud begins by saying:

It is always said that competition between different producer and companies producing similar products is good for the end users and consumer of those products because the each company tried to provide better products to satisfy the consumer and finally receive more income.

All of the above are true when we are discussing commercial entities which produce the products, for example ORACLE and IBM competition lead to better database and set of middle-ware. But I believe it is not the case for open source projects and specially for smaller open source projects.

He goes on to note that com between similar, small open source projects can be wasteful:

Looking around we can find at least 10 different open source blogging clients, MP3 meta data editing tools, media players, instant messaging clients and so on. Except for the first project, other similar projects started after there was something usable around. Developers working on each of these projects work to implement same set of features...

I agree with Masoud that in the open source world there is an incredible amount of, in essence, duplicated effort. And much of this duplication of effort is of a type that would never occur in the corporate business world. In the open source realm, you can indeed have a plethora of small projects that have approximately the same objective, but with various tweaks in the feature set. This happens to a much lesser extent in the business world.

So, what difference between open source and corporate business drives this? Well, it's money. In the corporate business world, all effort is funded by someone. If an idea doesn't convince someone that a profit can be generated somewhere down the line, that idea does not receive funding; and no development effort (beyond, perhaps, a very basic prototype) is expended.

Meanwhile, with open source, the driver behind the effort is usually some combination of love of the activity of software engineering, practicality ("I need this, and it doesn't exist, so I'll invent it"), charity ("the world needs this, so I'll provide it"), socialization (each open source project is its own little community), ego ("I like seeing my name up there as owner of a project") -- and, there can also be a desire and/or hope for eventual profit. Even without profit, you could say that open source projects are kind of like little businesses that operate within a different realm, where the currency through which effort is rewarded is self-satisfaction, influence, or fame, rather than hard, cold cash. Though, sometimes, involvement in a major open source project can indirectly turn into cash by spiffing up your resume, leading to new professional consulting opportunities or a better chance to land your next job.

The profit motive for a software engineering project within a corporation is number one, while in a smaller open source project financial profit is typically far down on the list of objectives, if it's there at all.

Due to the tether of needing to make immediately visible to the marketing team the probability of making a profit (and soon!), many good ideas go nowhere in the corporate world. I think this is a major reason why open source came to be such a powerful force in software engineering. Surely, everyone would be pleased if their ideas and their work ultimately produced a financial reward. But, sometimes the desire to make the idea reality is sufficiently pervasive that developers, seeing no route within their day jobs, decide to work on the project on their own. Especially when open source was first coming into being, I think this was the case.

Masoud, who has worked on many open source projects, looks at the wasted effort expended by 90% of small projects that seek to create their own version of a product that already exists in a bigger, more established open source project:

I know that there are architectural differences between projects and developers think that they will do the job better than the previous one, I was there once and I know how does it feel, but believe me, working together on a single project makes much more sense than working on 10 separate projects with similar goals and later on seeing 7 of them abandoned.

A better solution:

Imagine that all developers working on different instant messaging project combine the effort and work on one of available IM projects, wouldn't that please everyone in the community?

Masoud's view on open source projects and developer effort is practical. Pooling efforts indeed produces more functional and fully featured products. You see this in the big open source projects.

But, some people are by nature inventors, and need constantly to strike out on their own. They don't like to be limited by other people's opinions, constrained by things like a "community process." Such constraints immediately begin to feel like an overarching bureaucracy to these people, somewhat like what exists in the corporate world. They don't like limiting structures, so they leave and start new projects.

Others, of course, simply have big egos, or can't get along with anyone else, so they prefer to create and work on their own one-person projects.

Between these two groups, the natural inventors and the big egos, I think we'll always have lots of small open source projects, and lots of basically duplicated developer effort. But it's also true that among that small, devoted inventor group, some people are today working on ideas no one else is thinking about, that will become major products everyone knows about 10 years from now.

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It is always said that competition between different producer and companies producing similar products is good for the end users and consumer of those products because the each company tried to provide better products to satisfy the consumer and finally receive more income. All of the above are true when we are discussing commercial entities which produce the products, for example ORACLE and IBM competition lead to better database and set of middle-ware. But I believe it is not the case for open source projects and specially for smaller open source projects...

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