Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Open Source: closed for business?

Open Source efforts have steadily gained traction over the last decade or so: as more and more people become connected to the web, the opportunity to contribute—or even just to download free software—has grown rapidly.

But is this movement stuttering slightly? Via Old Holborn, I see that Wikipedia has now published a begging letter from its founder.

Rather more worryingly, OpenOffice seems to be struggling too.
It is clear that the number of active contributors Sun brings to the project is continuing to shrink, which would be fine if this was being made up for by a matched increase in external contributors, sadly that seems not to be so.
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So, it should be clear that OO.o is a profoundly sick project, and worse one that doesn't appear to be improving with age.
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Crude as they are - the statistics show a picture of slow disengagement by Sun, combined with a spectacular lack of growth in the developer community. In a healthy project we would expect to see a large number of volunteer developers involved, in addition - we would expect to see a large number of peer companies contributing to the common code pool; we do not see this in OpenOffice.org. Indeed, quite the opposite we appear to have the lowest number of active developers on OO.o since records began: 24, this contrasts negatively with Linux's recent low of 160+. Even spun in the most positive way, OO.o is at best stagnating from a development perspective.

Now, your humble Devil uses the dedicated Mac equivalent, NeoOffice, partly because OpenOffice wouldn't run on a Mac for years (apart from in X11, which is a pain to use and not at all Mac-like), but this is a slightly worrying trend for those of us who espouse the benefits of Open Source projects.

And Obnoxio highlights the wider problem inherent in this trend. [Emphasis mine.]
I wonder why this is? Are people becoming disillusioned with maintaining open source? Is the novelty wearing off, are the zealots moving on to "proper jobs"? Is the cachet of being an open source developer becoming too diluted now that there are so many millions of open source projects going?

Whatever it is, it's an interesting and somewhat worrying development. Because if it can happen to Open Office, surely it can happen to any open source project? The death of such a visible flag-bearing open source project would probably chuck a bucket of ice cold water over any IT manager looking to move towards open source software for anything.

Of course, it doesn't necessarily mean that these projects are going to die, but it is certainly true that the innovations are going to be slower and less impressive.

As to where the developers have gone... well... if I were, say, a Linux developer, I know what I would be doing now: I would be writing small, elegant bits of software for the Mac. Why? Because porting it is extremely easy, Mac users are used to paying for software and they are grateful for the massive increase in applications that have become available since the release of Mac OS X.

Seriously, as far as really useful pieces of cheap, easy-to-use, innovative software go, I think that the Mac is now possibly the best platform. Over the last few years, there seem to have been enormous numbers of applications released that do just one thing really, really well and cost, say, $30–$100.

My favourite coding aplication, for instance, is not the massive, hundreds-of-pounds behemoth that is Dreamweaver, but the light and innovative Coda ($99, and a review); I am also currently testing (and liking) the rather super Espresso.

I now often use VectorDesigner ($70) rather than the expensive Illustrator (which also, in my opinion, is pretty close to having the worst interface design I have ever used). For those who want a Photoshop-style programme, though I haven't used it myself, the $50 Acorn has come very highly recommended.

I do all of my estimates, time-keeping and invoices with iBiz ($50), and I have already mentioned the large number of browsers that have also appeared.

There are a number of other little apps that I use, all of which are useful and which follow the same pattern: they do one thing really well, integrate beautifully with the Mac system, and are affordable for the ordinary punter.

More and more often, I find myself enthusing about pieces of software as solutions to friends' problems—this morning I was recommending iBiz to a lawyer—and then find myself having to stop, realising that they are Windows-based.

That's not to say that there aren't similar applications for Windows and that I don't know about them: it's entirely possible. I am merely saying that this trend is particularly prevalent—when it never has been before—on the Mac at this time. And, from reading Mac and tech blogs, a lot of the people developing these apps were previously developing for Linux and other open source OSes.

DISCLAIMER: I own an insignificant number of Apple shares.

8 comments:

Jonny said...

Of course, much of Mac OSX is also based on open source foundations (Apache, FreeBSD, etc etc).

I think Open Source is less important for the applications it includes (many of which are merely poor free copies of commercial behemoths like Office) than for the freedom it gives the likes of Apple to outflank Microsoft's monopoly. In these cases it has often relied upon companies like Apple and IBM (as well as academia) to support development and polish it to an acceptable commercial level.

So while OpenOffice (and even Wikipedia) will probably falter, the underlying open standards and technologies will continue to exert their power.

Ian B said...

Markets. Markets work because people can trade something they have for something more valuable. That's why we libertarians all believe in markets, isn't it? We know the profit motive works. It's essential.

People will only get involved in communal projects if they feel they're getting something more than they contribue or they're caught up in some kind of evangelical zeal. Firefox is largely a manifestation of Microsoft Hatred for instance- a hatred so great that Firefox contributors are happy to make Mozilla rich beyond the dreams of avarice just in the hope of harming Microsoft. But, so long as they think they're getting something more than their opportunity cost (hurting Bill Gates) they'll carry on doing it. If the hatred starts to subside, or the old haters lose their zeal and new haters don't arise, Firefox is a stiff.

Most open source projects seem to require a greater input from their contributors than they receive. They thus are dependent on some kind of zeal to make up the difference. Wikipedia in particular is more of a social networking site and, more importantly, a fad. Enthusiasm is bound to subside, just as people are unlikely to be much impressed by LOLcats 50 years from now. The practical upshot of wikipedia is you get a shit, unreliable encyclopaedia for free, and somewhere to argue with other "encyclopaedists". It seems very unlikely the fad will sustain indefinitely. After all, in the end you're just writing a dull reference book, and that's really not very hip, when you stand back and think about it.

Open source has never had any real firm economic underpinning. That doesn't mean such communal projects will entirely die out, but they're never going to replace commerce either. I don't get my groceries free at a shop run by amateurs doing it for the love of sharing. It's hard to see why software or encyclopaedias should be any different.

Wasp_Box said...

Markets. Markets work because people can trade something they have for something more valuable. That's why we libertarians all believe in markets, isn't it? We know the profit motive works. It's essential.

No it’s not. Libertarian, to me, means being able to decide how I interact with others and markets are not the only way.

People will only get involved in communal projects if they feel they're getting something more than they contribue or they're caught up in some kind of evangelical zeal. Firefox is largely a manifestation of Microsoft Hatred for instance- a hatred so great that Firefox contributors are happy to make Mozilla rich beyond the dreams of avarice just in the hope of harming Microsoft. But, so long as they think they're getting something more than their opportunity cost (hurting Bill Gates) they'll carry on doing it. If the hatred starts to subside, or the old haters lose their zeal and new haters don't arise, Firefox is a stiff.

Again, you are wrong. Netscape was not an anti-Microsoft development. It was an attempt to produce a better browser. It went under because Microsoft suddenly saw that www was an issue and produced IE which (at the time) wiped Netscape off the board (for many reasons – including an unfair advantage subsequently punished by the courts). Firefox has risen from the ashes of Netscape. It is a far superior browser to IE. Most people involved in open source software are motivated by a community ethic that may be foreign to you.

Most open source projects seem to require a greater input from their contributors than they receive. They thus are dependent on some kind of zeal to make up the difference. Wikipedia in particular is more of a social networking site and, more importantly, a fad. Enthusiasm is bound to subside, just as people are unlikely to be much impressed by LOLcats 50 years from now. The practical upshot of wikipedia is you get a shit, unreliable encyclopaedia for free, and somewhere to argue with other "encyclopaedists". It seems very unlikely the fad will sustain indefinitely. After all, in the end you're just writing a dull reference book, and that's really not very hip, when you stand back and think about it.

Wikipedia is neither shit nor unreliable. It’s a good first start point for research. If you are looking for basic information about something sensible, you will generally find it on Wikipedia. It’s a good idea and it works OK. It is, of course, open to abuse but, on the whole, it’s not bad.

Open source has never had any real firm economic underpinning. That doesn't mean such communal projects will entirely die out, but they're never going to replace commerce either. I don't get my groceries free at a shop run by amateurs doing it for the love of sharing. It's hard to see why software or encyclopaedias should be any different.

Then perhaps you should try stretching your brain a little.

Giolla said...

The open source world has always delighted in re-inventing the wheel, a new project which will do X better than anything else is much cooler than fixing or working on an existing project. With an office application this is compounded by the decreased number of coders that actually use office products to any great extent, no real motivation to fix it and these days most stuff works well enough that casual users (most programmers probably)won't even notice problems. I suspect that OpenOffice has reached the level of good enough and people have moved on to reinvent the next wheel.

Wikipedia has a hell of an income for a volunteer run project, and as frequently covered by The Register isn't exactly the neutral striving for excellence it likes to claim to be. Wikipedia being curtailed and replaced by a load of specialist wheels/alternatives wouldn't be any bad thing from my point of view.

(To declare interest I do know the UK wikifiddler in chief)

But in either case 2 ,admittedly high profile, projects having a few problems doesn't do much to indicate a problem with open source as a whole or as a concept. Just maybe not everything is best suited to an open source collaborative approach.

Guido Fawkes said...

Is Open Office being killed by Google Docs?

I use the latter now and used to used the former.

Druid said...

Open Source will never die - even if you wanted it to!

Guido is right on the money - Open Office is old hat - the open source movement is already in the world of cloud computing, and the dodo still using a desktop environment are going to suffer.

If you want to point at the success of open source, just look at the Linux distro people, Red Hat etc if you want to know where the market works. Then there is the likes of Apache, MySQL etc for the big successful apps.

The reasons that open source projects die is that the user bases changes from those who are interested in the technology to the dumb arses who just want something for nothing. Nobody is going to help someone who isn't willing to help themselves - that is what the term RTFM was invented for!

I guess the point is that if you are willing to put a little effort in, you get more out!

As an example, the netbook I'm currently using has been modified to a very high spec through an open source project. The general public wouldn't really be interested in the problems we had getting the wifi card to be stable, or the overclocking of the processor.

They will however be happy with using the end result when the manufacturer sells the next model with the modifications fitted. My reward? Being 12 months ahead of the herd - which is good for business!

franky said...

Open Source will stay and continue to grow, especially with the massive popularity of netbooks.

Fact is that people might be less inclined to contribute source for one of the richest moguls worldwide (Sun), an almost failed and always reinventing company (Novell) or a semi closed garden with a _dubious_ evangelist at the head (Wikipedia).

But analog to the dominance of corporate products, also in the OSS world only the fewest products will survive with time, with a great user and contribution base though. Examples are plenty. Firefox/Mozilla, WordPress, Webkit, Foobar, Ubuntu (until owned by the next player who wants to gain traction/sympathy), OpenX.

OO is bound to fail long term, it always was and maybe because of what Bill G. said some years ago: OO looks like Works 3.11.
And he wasn't too wrong either. OO may be great but always failed for the person who knew a little how Office functioned.
Thunderbird is bound to fail with Gmail, even more Windows Live implementation in Windows 7 (so yes Hotmail clone from MS) and people still use Yahoo (go figure).

What worries me more is what will happen to MySQL now they are owned owned by Sun?
I think I can live with PostgreSQL if needed.

Disclosure: I am a 90% Machead and own no shares in any company.

Chalcedon said...

I was rather sad to read about Open Office slowing down and withering away. I'm not a programer so I can't really help, but I am a dedicated user of OO and recently downloaded version 3.0 which is very good. Is MS hitting back with crazy cheapo deals for MS Office via PC World? I recall some advert I unfortunately caught last night. I think the open source movement is a good one and I do contribute when/where I can via paypal.