How much of a success is open source?

How much of a success is open source? In his musings on open source, and how ideas cross the chasm, Alan Patrick ponders the origin story of open source, and how it relates to a particular brand of utopianism.

“The problem of course, is that many of these Utopians are the dreamers and idealists who got in early and inspired so many others to join the movement in the first place. Without these enthusiastic early adopters, these ideas would never get off the ground to be in a position where the leaders do have to grasp the nettles.”

Part of the problem, too, is that too many promises were made by open source evangelists who understood neither project management nor people management. Anyone who’s even passingly familiar with project management knows that piling more “eyeballs” on a problem doesn’t make it shallow: what you need are the right eyeballs, in the right context, at the right time. This becomes more and more true as projects become deeply complex: someone picking up the code of, say, MySQL today will have quite a long learning curve before they can meaningfully contribute to the project.

The second issue is simply that bug-fixing and other such code quality tasks are, in many ways, the most trivial of problems in software. Designing good user experiences is far harder and much less amenable to simply piling on more people. This is why much of the development in open source user interface design has simply been copying from and (and occasionally evolving) existing closed-source designs.

None of this is to to denigrate the achievements of the open source community, and as a software methodology it is immensely valuable – not least because it contributes massively to the overall software community. In fact, the true success of open source may not ultimately be in specific open coding projects, but in the legacy of solutions to software problems – the vast, unpatented (and unpatentable) pool of “ways of doing” which open source coders have developed.

But like all movements founded in utopianism, what it actually becomes and the effects it ultimately has will be very different from the aims of its founders – and arguably, for society as a whole, better.