Keeping a cool head about the Open Source pixie dust…


I just read an interesting proposal from Robert Scoble to “open source” WMP along with all sorts of funny comments that followed. Here is the most juicy part, I think:

Hi Bill. I’ve been thinking about how to make Windows Media cool. You know, cooler than wearing white headphone cords.

Open source the product development.

Yeah, you’re gonna be hearing a lot about “open source this” and “open source that” in 2005. Open source has become a metaphor for things done in public view with public input.

Maybe it’s just me, but you can’t make some commercial project succesful just by sprinkling some magic Open Source pixie dust on it. You need more than that. (by “you” I meant anybody interested to develop a relevant software project). First you need a clear vision on the product. Second you need a clear story on how to get a broad adoption (if this is part of the goal), and third, you need to understand the market and know precisely how you can be better than others. Sometimes, open source might partially help here or there, but I really don’t see it as an universal panacea! In the end, personally, I am not sure if opening the Windows Media Player source tree will increase its adoption…

But Robert’s story illustrates an interesting fenomenon that’s going on these days – there is an increasing growing perception that “open source is good, no matter what” and “closed source is bad”. Note that I said perception and not reality… 🙂 In fact, I heard enough stories about the bad quality of various open source projects. I am wondering how many projects on sourceforge are meeting the minimum quality bar that we can find in the average commercial software?

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t want to spread FUD or anything. I actually think that Open Source is something that we need these days, and it is a perfectly fine way to develop many software projects (especially non-commercial ones). And opening the source for reading and sometimes allow source code modification might be a requirement in some cases – take for example the Windows Embedded kernel. But an open-source approach that works in one specific project can be a drag in other projects where the actual source code (and therefore part of your Intellectual Property) is something you want to keep private – just because you invested so much money to get it right…

P.S. That said, I actually appreciate this kind of posts from Robert, and probably some of these follow-up comments were too harsh… maybe there is a seed of truth there – after all, didn’t Real open source most of their streaming infrastructure in their Helix stuff?

Comments (4)

  1. Jonathan says:

    I agree with most of waht you said here. Open source is a wonderful thing, hwoever when it comes to productino software, the standards are jsut not there in many cases. There is barely any QA and there is almost never anyone to check with or go to for support which is not a good scenario for a product i want to sell and make money with.

    jminond410@hotmail.com

  2. I don’t know what people talk about open source not having good support. I receive far better support in open source than in commercial software. Sure, there isn’t necessarily an official channel, but I get the answer I want and I often get it faster. Any time I have ever called a support line for commercial software, it has been a waste of time. I can clearly tell that the support personnel are reading off knowledge base entries and are clueless when you have a new issue.

    Open source, however, isn’t necessarily going to make something a success, but there are ways to be successful with it. I would encourage anybody considering making something open source for commercial purposes to read Frank Hecker’s Setting Up Shot <http://hecker.org/writings/setting-up-shop&gt;. It is derived from the essay he distributed to other managers at Netscape Communications in order to get the Netscape Communicator open-sourced.

  3. I’ve been having some simliar discussions with some other bloggers over evaluating the quality of open source projects because IMO you never can tell when you get and you can’t base everything on repuation. I think this is an area that the open source community has some work. (http://viewfusion.com/blog/jcarlisle/archive/2004/12/28/200.aspx)

  4. Charles Chen says:

    There is something about OSS that people find attractive, and it’s NOT just magic pixie dust.

    I think the reason is quite simple. When you set up an OSS project, people feel involved. People feel the desire to help each other in community forums. People feel like they have a voice, a connection with the development team. The latter is possibly the most important detail, that connection with the development team.

    Having the source is just an added bonus. I’ve come across situations where it’s been a huge time saver to take something that someone has done and customize it for my needs.

    I agree, OSS isn’t always done right. I mean, who’s doing QA on these products? You are, the end user! But on the other hand, you get a lot of benefits, as I mentioned above. I think you can get a feel for MS’s attitude towards OSS with the WiX (Windows Installer XML, do a Google search). Going forward, I think MS will release more OSS tools geared towards developers.

    As Martha would say, "This is a good thing"