Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Open as in source, or Open as in process?

A long-standing terminology issue in free software is whether it's "free as in speech, or free as in beer" (ref). A related confusion arises with the adjective "open". The term "Open Source" is most authoritatively defined by the Open Source Initiative. Other phrases like Open Standard and openness (as a way of operating an organization) are more loosely used. With efforts like Open Content and Open Law (not to mention OpenCola), openness is clearly in vogue now.

These "opens" don't always go together, despite common assumptions. There's an automatic assumption that these are all meritorious and that anybody with the merit of doing open source software also has the merits of following open standards and an open process.

Open source and open process

Since "openness" is too vague, I'll take a stab instead at considering "open process". The phrase is relative: a more open process is one which is more transparent, less restricted in participation, and less obscure. For example anybody may search the Mozilla bug database and see bug status (transparent) and anybody may submit a bug (unrestricted participation). In addition the bug database is easy to find and there are instructions for use (not obscure).

Why would an open source effort fail to have an open process? Simple -- a process has a cost that must offset its benefits, and an open process can have a higher cost than a closed process. A small group of programmers (one to three, maybe four) don't get much benefit from formal processes, let alone formally open processes. The way to contribute to an open source project, or how submissions get accepted, or what feature get added, may happen in a very opaque way; decisions may be made by one person or made in private conversations among a small group.

Contrast that to a company where there are very likely to be customer requests and some standard process to handle them. The process may very likely be closed and private, but it's also quite possible for a company to have an open process to discuss feature inclusion. For example, at Xythos, we started a customer forum where customers could get together and discuss the merits of various feature requests. The final decision was up to us but the process was not entirely closed. Some open source projects don't even have a forum for discussing feature requests, or a public list of feature requests.

Of course, open source efforts are probably more likely overall to have open processes. Sites like Sourceforge contribute to this synergy by opening up bug tracking and discussion forums in a cheap way -- open source contributors don't have to make a huge investment to make the development process more open as well.

At OSAF we put a lot of effort into ensuring that our processes are transparent, participatory, and not obscure. It's been estimated that one part of that alone, the weekly IRC chats, consumes nearly one morning per developer per week -- that's enormous. Documenting everything we say in in-person meetings and keeping public Wiki pages up to date are other major costs. Obviously we hope that doing the "openness" thing confers benefits in the long run to the larger community, but at such a high cost, it's obviously not a cost every open source group can bear.

Part II of this post, discussing the weaker synergy between open source and open standards, will come this weekend I hope.

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