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  • Doug Belshaw 11:14 am on August 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: free software, Open source, Totara   

    Free software, open source, and sustainability 

    Image by William White

    I’m doing some work with Totara at the moment. Before I started, I had a couple of conversations with their CEO, Richard Wyles, as I didn’t fully understand their business model. I discovered that, instead of providing solutions directly to customers, they develop open source software for their partners, who then customise solutions for customers. Money flows back to Totara through partners to cover costs around development, administration, and co-ordination activities. Customers get access to the source code, and aren’t locked into a relationship with a vendor reliant on proprietary code.

    The reason I wanted to know more about Totara’s model before starting work with them is because there’s been a lot of sensitivity around ‘openwashing’ over the last few years. Openwashing is whereby a company uses the language of the open source world, without actually adhering to its principles. You can read more about how to spot (and avoid) openwashing in this excellent article. It’s a contentious area and involves some interpretation.

    Today, an article by Richard Wyles has been published on opensource.com. Entitled We don’t make software for free, we make it for freedom, Wyles reiterates Richard Stallman‘s point around the true meaning of software freedom:

    Basing a business on an open source strategy is undoubtedly challenging, because no matter how many times you quote Richard Stallman that software freedom means “free speech,” not “free beer,” there is a persistent expectation that open source means free: free software, free updates, free knowledge, free support. In part, the confusion comes because a lot of GPL software is “free as in beer.” Many open source projects come from individuals or small groups coalescing around a problem they want to solve. They publish their output for free because they want others to join their effort.

    The problem we’ve got here is partly one around semantics: Stallman focuses on the Free Software movement, which actually has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with liberty. Unless you really care about this stuff, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

    In any case, it’s an article that’s worth reading. I’ll just pull out one more quotation from Wyles:

    Many single-vendor commercial open source firms adopt [a] dual-licensing approach, with a free community version and a paid-for enterprise proprietary license. The risk here is that the company prioritizes the proprietary version, because that’s where their money comes from, and the community version is soon perceived as “crippleware” or even worse, “abandonware.” For example, SugarCRM suspended or slowed development on its Community Edition and now makes it clear that it is not suitable in a production environment. I’m not criticizing them—you have to earn enough to keep the lights on, right? But are they still an open source vendor?

    This stuff is hard, but I’ve been persuaded in my conversations with Totara that not only are they not openwashing, but they’re actively trying to make open source software development into something that’s sustainable.

    Photo by William White on Unsplash

  • Doug Belshaw 9:00 am on June 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: documentation, GitHub, Open source, survey   

    What’s the biggest problem in open source right now? 


    Fig.1 - Problems encountered in open source

    The 2017 Open Source Survey, carried out by GitHub is a valuable source of information. Large parts of it, however, prove somewhat difficult to intepret and act upon given the huge skew in gender:

    The gender imbalance in open source remains profound: 95% of respondents are men; just 3% are women and 1% are non-binary. Women are about as likely as men (68% vs 73%) to say they are very interested in making future contributions, but less likely to say they are very likely to actually do so (45% vs 61%).

    There’s a systemic issue here. While the survey indicates that ‘serious’ incidents have been experienced by a relatively few number of respondents, these have an outsized impact on the community:

    By far, the most frequently encountered bad behavior is rudeness (45% witnessed, 16% experienced), followed by name calling (20% witnessed, 5% experienced) and stereotyping (11% witnessed, 3% experienced). More serious incidents, such as sexual advances, stalking, or doxxing are each encountered by less than 5% of respondents and experienced by less than 2% (but cumulatively witnessed by 14%, and experienced by 3%).

    There’s work to do here. Privileged white males like me who are involved in open source (in whatever way) need to realise that issues that affect anyone in the community affect the whole community. It’s easy to see why “not all open source contributors” isn’t a valid response when you see data like this:

    Fig.3 - Importance to project

    Finally, with one important caveat, this last chart chimes with what I look for when seeking out new software:

    FIg.5 - What open source users value in software

    The reason the ‘support’ option scores so low, I’d argue, is because of the survey methodology. People who are actively contributing code to open source projects are a subset of users of the software. Given that ‘documentation’ would come under ‘support’, it’s ironic that the first and last chart here seem to contradict one another!

    Either way, it’s clear that the open source community still has work to do to make people new to projects feel involved, and for them to know what to do. I’d call this ensuring you’ve got your ‘architecture of participation’ right.

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