Tuesday, 26 August 2008

When is open source not open source?

I've been having a pretty major headache trying to get my SqueezeBox Duet to do media streaming ever since I bought it many months ago. The SqueezeBox is also the primary reason for buying a low power home server that I've been blogging plentifully about too. I'll save the post about my trials with the SqueezeBox itself for the day when I resolve the issue; either with a fix or by sending the darned thing back for a refund. However, it's got me thinking about some other things along the way while I've been trying to solve the various problems.

We're all familiar with open source. It can have a pretty simple definition i.e. where source code for a piece of software is made available publicly. Dealing with Slim Devices which are now a Logitech company has sparked thoughts about just how many different types of open source there are and when open source crosses the line to no longer feel like open source even if I can still download the source code.

I'm very used to working with what I think of as standard open source projects. These are the ones that generally started with one person writing something small to solve a problem they had or because they didn't like other versions of software trying to do the same thing. The more mature of these are generally run by a person or small group of individuals who control the project for the benefit of the community of users in a not-for-profit fashion. Numerous examples spring to mind, not least the Linux kernel itself, but huge amounts of different software some of which get grouped e.g. those from the Apache Foundation, KDE, Gnome, Mozilla; and those that stand alone e.g. Pidgin, X-Chat, Samba, rsync; to name just a few that pop into my head.

I think where I'm going with this post is to look at what happens when open source stops being not-for-profit and these projects tread the line between this standard type of open source project and become something else. This is where I've got to in my experience with SqueezeCenter, but clearly this isn't the first for-profit open source software. I have no idea what the first is/was but there are definitely some prominent examples out there such as MySQL. Slim Devices employ developers to write and maintain SqueezeCenter which is central (although billed as optional) to the hardware they sell. In their case, the software is free to use and completely open source, it's written in Perl. The way this model changes the community is quite interesting.

In my experience so far, instead of having lots of developers donating their time to the project to learn, fix, maintain and progress the code base, developers are paid to do this. In the case of SqueezeCenter this seems to cut down the community to just those developers paid to do so. Why would other people contribute to something for which they could be paid, or for which other people are paid? Plenty of people get paid to write code for the Linux kernel but in this and other examples there is a distributed interest for that code rather than the single point of interest of one company. In spite of the fact I don't feel compelled to contribute to SqueezeCenter directly though, I still take great comfort from knowing it's open source and I think that's where the benefit to Slim Devices comes from. If I did have a problem, I could fix it myself, maybe sending a patch or possibly maintain my own personal patch set if I got that deeply involved.

So how many types of open source are there and when does open source no longer feel like open source? A good philosophical point for debate for which I think there is no real answer. There are so many reasons for using the open source methodology that it can bring benefits in so many different ways whether you're a developer, employee, company or simply a user. Each open source project tends to have a different feel to it, in my experience so far this has generally been governed by those who run or contribute to the project. However, there are clearly some other factors that might determine what it feels like to be part of a project that releases its source code. I'm sure the reasons for these are as numerous as the benefits they bring.

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