Open Source Software: The Power of Community

The IT industry appears to be in the thick of a number of interesting trends happening not only in technology, but in society at large. Cultural assumptions are changing about the nature of media and production, and consumers are being empowered as producers.

The Web at large has embraced this shift for several years, but businesses are just starting to realize the power and benefits of rethinking our understanding of ownership and participation.

The open source software community has been among the first to leverage these changing assumptions to create value and build businesses out of shared, community-based efforts. It is open source, I think, that will lead the way in bringing more enterprises to the next-generation web.

In the Beginning

It is well-known that when the Internet first entered the collective consciousness, it was understood in traditional terms, particularly by corporate America. Web site success was measured by audience and impressions — the traditional language of print and television media — and publishing processes were little changed for web content.

For their part, web surfers looked mainly for entertaining sites and interesting articles to read, fulfilling their long-held consumer roles.

Traditional print publications weren’t very imaginative with their Web presence, simply taking articles written for print and making them available online.

The Power of Interactivity

Those who understood the Web, however, knew that what’s compelling about the Web is that it empowers people to publish, produce, connect, and ultimately reach their own audiences.

It started off modestly with sites like ePinions, built on the premise that reviews written by buyers “like you” were more valuable. This was a shift on several fronts.

First, one didn’t have to wait for the monthly computer magazine bake-off to find out how the latest gadgets fared: users could post their impressions immediately. Second, the already compromised standard for published web content continued to fall as these sites offered tools that let people publish without knowledge of HTML.

Figuring it Out

This led to tools developed to raise quality of content, including approval mechanisms (which have the downside of hampering the “immediacy” of Internet publishing) and ratings systems.

More and more web surfers became web producers, and a site’s success had less to do with its content it delivered than the tools it provided and the community that it could draw. Both of these were measures of participation rather than passive consumption.

Still, the focus was on the individual; the next major shift took things one step further by leveraging the latent power and value of relationships.

ePinions is great for enabling real-world reviews, but it captures minimal information about relationships. At best, reviewers that have written trustworthy reviews in the past might be designated as favorites.

The Next Step

But what if you could leverage the latent value of preexisting, real-world relationships and make it easy to create new relationships online?

Consider LinkedIn, a site that does exactly that. LinkedIn is a digital record of something very organic — a person’s business relationships and work experience, particularly their experience working with others as captured by “Recommendations.”

Building up a profile requires work, but it’s work that’s reusable and holds value over time.

Once your network is built out, LinkedIn can leverage that network immediately.

The Value of Community

As an example, imagine adding a reviews feature to LinkedIn. This would make it function like ePinions, yet the implicit knowledge built in to the network would make those reviews all the more valuable.

Now a laser printer review can automatically reach a known audience, and the review will come with assumed legitimacy by virtue of personal knowledge (I know Peter and he knows hardware), verified information (Peter has three recommendations for his work as a repair technician), or a shared connection (my friend Sara says Peter knows printers).

Software as a Community

What does this all have to do with open source?

Like social Web sites, open source software is most valuable when it has a strong community around it, a community that has invested time and effort into learning the technology, creating features, submitting bug fixes, and creating documentation.

Open source is also about empowering users to participate and not simply consume software. It shifts the role of a user from simply reporting defects to actually fixing them. It also allows users to generate “content” — that is, new features — and influence project roadmaps.

Unfortunately, as with user-generated sites, open source software can have quality issues, some of which stem from being software at all — proprietary software isn’t necessarily perfect either — but some of which comes from the nature of being open source.

As with social networks, open source software is self-regulated through relationships — a developer will protect his community reputation by contributing high-quality code, or risk being discouraged from participation.

Relevance to the Enterprise

Now, how do these two trends tie together to apply to the enterprise realm? Interestingly, it is successful (which is often commercial) open source software that can help enterprises embrace and empower the communities inherently present in their businesses and unleash their latent value.

Imagine if a car audio systems manufacturer could connect its user base — including dealers, avid hobbyists, and regular consumers — with its enterprise divisions, whether marketing, product development, or service.

Those who are already blogging about the latest MP3 head unit or posting instructions on how to install iPod wiring in a specific automobile could be leveraged to provide informal reviews and documentation as part of the manufacturer’s online presence.

The Results

The musings of regular consumers (“I wish this deck had an aux input”) could provide cues as to what the marketplace wants. The result is more effective business processes, reduced service costs, and more up-to-date and dynamic reference material.

This is the power of a community-enabled enterprise. To be successful, these communities evolve with the needs of its participants, who are accustomed to the idea of “perpetual beta” sites that add features to respond to community suggestions.

For enterprises, these community members are participants not only in online content, but also product development and, ultimately, business direction.

Nimble and Responsive

Traditional proprietary software, with its long release cycles and closely guarded development roadmaps, will never be nimble enough to address needs that are constantly changing. Waiting 12-18 months for new features will leave an enterprise irrelevant and its user base powerless, or worse, moving on to other companies.

Open source software gives enterprises a jump start to developing their online community framework, both in terms of time and cost. It also allows enterprises to open up development to internal staff and external users. The next generation of online communities demands participation, and open source software welcomes and embraces it.

Facebook recently opened its community partially through an application programming interface (API) to allow third parties, including its users, to develop applications based on the Facebook community.

This was an ingenious move to leverage the creativity of the Facebook community to increase the value of the platform itself and create new value through third parties — all with a minimal investment by the company itself.

Once enterprises overcome fears about opening up traditionally proprietary processes and assets to their communities, they will be able to leverage the wealth of value inherent in the people they do business with, and empower them to participate in building their own success.

Bryan Cheung is CEO of Liferay, developer of an open source portal platform and content-management system.

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