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Devs Engage in Soul-Searching on Future of Open Source

Two things to avoid in online discussions are politics and religion. Open source technology may be an explosive third topic that software developers should be wary of subjecting to a virtual debate.

Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg and Ruby on Rails creator and Basecamp cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson got into an all-out Twitter slugfest last week about the role of open source.

“We want every website, whether it’s e-commerce or anything to be powered by WordPress” is a nasty, monopolistic goal. Listening to Matt muse about 85% marketshare dreams is a real downer. But $300m is a down payment on monopoly dreams.

— DHH (@dhh) September 19, 2019

The bantering touched on issues that included the monopoly-making power of WordPress and forking applications to blunt runaway growth.

The heated Twitter conversation between Mullenweg and Hansson grew as 120 others responded with opposing viewpoints on market share, monopolies and power in open source communities. Many argued over the likelihood of open source projects keeping a balance on who controls the tools and the power.

The issue with open source is that there is not one camp. The definition of what “open source” means can vary from person to person, noted Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“This lack of consistency makes it very difficult to balance open source and closed source,” he told LinuxInsider, “because open source isn’t locked down and can range from just being able to see the source code to being able to use it with varying degrees of freedom and cost.”

No One Wins

At the heart of the debate is whether capitalism should rule or efforts should be more communal with everyone contributing and sharing in the result, Enderle observed, but that rarely is fair as benefits get shared, although a few people do most of the work.

The discussion is based on the old “free as in freedom vs. free as in free beer” argument, he noted. That debate has been going on since open source began, and getting into the middle of that argument is both painful and largely unrewarding.

“It’s like arguing religion or politics,” said Enderle. “Often everyone loses.”

Debate Takes Off

The virtual fracas on Twitter started with comments Mullenweg made in a recent interview after Salesforce Ventures invested US$300 million in Automattic last month.

Hansson took to twitter to present another viewpoint on the impact of that development.

Mullenweg asserted that there was potential to get to a similar market share as Android, which now has 85 percent of all handsets.

Open source has “a virtuous cycle of adoption, people building on the platform and more adoption,” he said.

Wanting every website, e-commerce or otherwise, to be powered by WordPress as suggested was “a nasty, monopolistic goal,” Hansson tweeted.

“Listening to Matt muse about 85 percent market share dreams is a real downer,” he added. “But $300m is a down payment on monopoly dreams.”

WordPress Users Invested

Hansson was not surprised by the intensity of the responses in the Twitter exchange. Many WordPress fans have a lot invested in the platform, so it is not surprising that they feel strongly about the unknown prospects of the venture capital firm wanting its return, he told LinuxInsider.

“I think WordPress is in an interesting place right now because it can clearly flip both ways: be an empowering force for good or turn into yet another VC domination story,” he said.

Automatic must be at least somewhat conscious of the fact that mixing open source, monopoly ambitions and half a billion dollars in venture capital is a volatile cocktail, Hansson observed.

“I’m hoping that by expressing our concerns, Matt Mullenweg and his team will have the dangers top of mind,” he said. “I think the heart is in the right place, even if the perception of monopoly dangers isn’t quite developed yet.”

Goes Beyond WordPress

This discussion is larger than WordPress, however. It is about the kind of Internet everyone would like to see, said Hansson. There are two possible future Internet realities: one with a few titans sitting on everything, or one with an array of options.

That touches on the issue of balancing the open source process with the threat of growing dominance. Solutions can be found, he maintained.

What’s needed are awareness and pressure, suggested Hansson. If devs make it uncool to be an 800-pound gorilla, then there hopefully is some self-selection going on that will prevent that from happening.

“Open source can be a force for so much good,” he said, “but we shouldn’t be blind to the fact that just because something wears the ‘open source’ label does not mean that it is inherently good.”

Open source has taken bad turns, done bad things, and caused great harm.

“It’s not an automatic cape of virtue,” Hansson said.

Question of Priorities

Balancing who controls a project is critical, according to Gareth Greenway, senior software developer at SaltStack.

“Anytime there is a commercial entity behind an open source project, there is a balance that has to be maintained,” he told LinuxInsider.

Part of that balancing process is being careful to keep your community happy and healthy. That is especially important if there are participants who are contributing to your core product. It is also critical because they are your user base, Greenway added.

“At the same time, you have to keep your customers happy since they are paying for the core product,” he pointed out. “At the end of the day, someone is ultimately responsible for maintaining a project, either an individual or a company, and therefore is ultimately in control of that project.”

Collaboration Rather Than Domination

Open source development involves more than maintaining a balance, observed Heikki Nousiainen, CTO at Aiven.

“Open source software is intended to be a collaborative, public effort, where users can develop and improve code as it works for their purposes, but is equally beneficial to all,” he told LinuxInsider.

Some companies that use open source licenses monopolize the software. That goes against the original purpose of open source. Those companies then have the capability to impact the future of open source in a way that does not build on the original public code.

Those companies have a choice, Nousiainen suggested.

Clarifying Issues

Companies can choose to build on open source and maintain its balance, said Nousiainen. The future of open source depends on the viewpoints of the potential collaborating organizations.

Issues arise, however, when developers or companies monopolize open source code or use it only for personal gain. Those actions, which alter the original purpose of open source licensing, sparked the current debate.

While open source software is available for public use, Nousiainen said, developers should remember that the work they do is for the benefit of all.

Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.Email Jack.

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