community, you keep using that word

a metaphor or something

For anyone paying attention to the Open Source ‘midlife crisis’, the last few months have provided plenty of fodder for everyone to argue on twitter. With multiple high profile projects re-licensing, we’ve gotten a call for ‘Sustainable Free and Open Source Communities’ and even calling Open Source business models ‘harmful’ .

If you are just waking up the the fact that Open Source is not a business model (which I called out at OSCON in 2014 for the record), then all this might appear less inevitable than the cloud reckoning probably always was.

But. Here. We. Are.

Analyzing the assumptions about software and particularly monetizing software that have changed since the term ‘Open Source’ was coined might be interesting, but others are doing some of that in the existing conversations. What I want to focus on here is a particularly prevalent assertion that I see most people taking for granted.

Open Source = Community

There appears to be an underlying assumption that ‘Free and Open Source’ is always best for ‘community’ and proprietary software is always at odds with ‘community’.

I’d like to challenge that assumption.

Let’s start with a definition or three (the second group straight from big G since group 1 is mostly concerned with geography):


  • a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals
  • a similarity or identity
  • joint ownership or liability

Joint Ownership

I want to start with ‘joint ownership or liability’ (which I consider least interesting to be honest) as here the definition of open and community appears to be nearly equivalent. Using this definition, what I really want to question is the notion of ‘best for’.

The best big tent driven shared ownership open source has by and large failed when compared to either proprietary software or benevolent dictator open source. Without naming any names, the history is there. The failure isn’t just about comparing value captured but even more true comparing value created. If community means maximizing the joint ownership of code, the history suggests most, if not everyone, will lose. Sorry, I don’t like it either, but it’s true.

Turns out communities aren’t actually good at taking care of commons. There is literally a tragedy named for this phenomenon.

A quick aside about the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, CNCF is interesting as a bit of a hybrid, almost a big tent for collaborating benevolent dictators. That story is still largely unwritten, but definitely interesting with plenty of reason to remain optimistic.

Now for the point I really wanted to make…

a feeling of fellowship

Humans participate in various communities to various degrees for various reasons. We are social creatures. Many open source projects create a sense of fellowship and maybe even a sense of identity. We all want purpose. We all want to be part of something. But not all Open Source projects do this very well, while some proprietary products do a great job.

Solaris admins felt like they were part of something.

Microsoft developers was definitely a thing.

VMware was built by vSpecialists at VMUGs.

Cisco certifications created a definite camaraderie.

The early days of Dreamforce felt like being part of a movement.

The slack for iOS developers has over 20K members.

Attending Re:Invent feels like a movement right now.

Communities rise and fall. Fashion and tribalism rule everything.

People don’t question this false community dichotomy strawman when talking about software products, particularly enterprise products, while at the same time many of us openly participate in communities for our favorite consumer products. Most of us are more than willing to concede joint ownership there and yet still would probably use the word ‘community’ unprompted without a second thought. If fact, even suggesting either joint ownership or that the product doesn’t have a community would feel completely weird.

I’d go a step farther and suggest that in some cases that is exactly what we are buying into. We are consumers buying identity. This is the power of brand.

in conclusion

I love open source and everything that open source creates and represents. I also want people to have nice things, software and otherwise.

I don’t believe anyone is entitled to a business model. The game is the game. I also don’t have any problem whatsoever with people who create value with software trying to figure out how to capture some.

That applies to open source software as well as proprietary.

We aren’t doing ourselves any favors pretending open source always creates more for a community or that proprietary software is always at odds with community.

Selling something for more than the cost is the only business model ever. Everything else is figuring out how to facilitate and optimize the transaction. Sell something people value has to be the foundational strategy.

Recognize people want to be part of something. Help them do that and align everyone’s interests with the outcome, you will create a sense of fellowship every time. This is true, always and forever, even when you take money for doing so.

When everyone’s interests aren’t aligned, you are now at odds by definition, open source or not.

Now you know. What are you going to do about it?

Let’s do better. For everyone.