Open Source is about much more than code contributions

Tell the pointy-haired bosses around the world: putting a GPL sticker on your product is not going to magically make all those nerds in their parent’s basements build it for you, and for free. Nope. Not going to happen. And you know what? The code contributions are not the benefits you’re looking for…

Just to get this out of the way, not all businesses should make their software open source. There are plenty of sensible reasons to keep your code closed (most of which would probably make me look for a different job, but that’s another story). Way worse than keeping your source proprietary however is to open it for the wrong reasons: it’s going to fail, and going back to closed is hard and damaging.

Community really is what you’re looking for, and making your product hackable is the best way to build that. And what better way to make your product hackable than to open it with the most liberal license you can find?

Community means the most loyal customer base you can hope for. Better, it means advocates for your products. Ask Tesla (a pioneer in open hardware in a very conservative industry): here’s a company that has disrupted the car business, without any advertising whatsoever. How? Community: the best Tesla salespeople are Tesla owners. How do you recognize a Tesla owner? You don’t have to, he will fucking tell you. And he’ll give you a ride. And then you’ll want one. So yes, you also need a freaking good product.

The community can help you with that as well, in fact: casual users aren’t going to tell you what sucks in your stuff, they’re just going to move to the competition. Deeply invested, passionate contributors will, because they need and want it to get better.

Building a passionate community is the stuff of dreams for business people, and it’s a very difficult thing to build. But here’s the catch: community is a two-way street. It works much better if it’s not based on a feudal system where the lord in the castle orders the serfs what to do. Nobody’s going to willingly stay in such a community, you’d need a way to coerce them to (not naming names, no sir), and that’s evil, m’kay? No, a healthy community, like a successful marriage, is based on mutual respect and genuine interest in others’ differences, drives, and goals.

If you feel the urge to restrict what your users can do with your code or designs, if you think you should prevent potential competitors from emerging from your user base, then maybe open source is not for you. You should feel comfortable with letting contributors come up with their own reasons to fork your project. It might be to build something amazingly creative that you wouldn’t have thought of in a thousand years, or it might be a clone of your product. Big deal, out-innovate them, capitalize on the rest of the community: nobody wants to use the cheap clone that’s lagging two releases behind.

Here’s another wonderful consequence of the open model: it will help you look beyond myopic profiteering, and build a business model that is more human. It will make you think about what really matters, about why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing. It will make your life better and more purposeful. True story.


  • My previous company had a "free" closed source software product which worked solely with their hardware. The software made the hardware more than just a useless paperweight and was locked in a number of ways. The drivers also allowed them sell a single hardware variant as a few different models and limit the features from software. The hardware locking was to make it harder for Chinese companies to make knock-off copies of our hardware. They certainly had a go and on occasions stole parts of the software.

    We had plenty of requests from customers asking us to open source the software and drivers. When we released Linux drivers we got some angry support requests asking for the source so they could just compile it themselves. I'm all for open source software and made contributions myself while working for that very company, but many companies would simply be dead in the water if they handed over their IP to the internet!

  • @Tim: yes, hardware is tough with the competition of cheap Chinese knock-offs. I'm definitely not saying all businesses should go open. There are examples of successful open hardware businesses, however, chief among them AdaFruit.

  • Hi Bertrand,
    Is it a feed back from the Orchard experience.
    There is something I can't totally define in the Orchard project which has always make me uncomfortable. It's partly related to the kind of project management adopted, with this 'Dictator' and the 'steering committee'. It is also in the few participating and 'deciding' users ( < 30) versus the large number of people using the code (which number, > 1000 ?). Orchard has certainly a community, but is it correctly acting ?


  • I'm afraid you'd have to be more specific.

  • I'm thinking on the way I could be more specific, but could you answer to the question 'Is it a feed back from the Orchard experience?'?

  • I can answer that, yes. Not really, actually, the post was the result of an internal discussion with my team at Microsoft about a piece of news that was entirely unrelated to Orchard. My experience with Orchard did inform my writing, of course, but that wasn't the trigger. But I'm more than happy to talk about Orchard.

  • @CS I am fairly new to the Orchard Project, but I have been doing my best to participate in the community. It is interesting that your view point is what it is, I have found it to be exactly the opposite. The structure is there when tough decisions need to be made or the project is maybe drifting from what it is intended to be, as far as saying that <30 deciding users are making decisions, that is because those <30 users are plugged in and attend the community meetings and participating in gitter. There are plenty of channels to voice any concerns or raise any issues that you have. I have found the Orchard Core team to be really responsive addressing any questions that I have. Every open source project is the same as far as the break down. Look at how many people use Ubuntu vs actively participate. I personally do not always agree with Ubuntu's direction and I feel I have two options, leave or get on board (participate more directly). That is why I usually use something like Xubuntu or Linux Mint instead of Ubuntu directly. That is exactly what Bertrand is discussing when talking about competitors. Nothing prevents anyone from forking Orchard and building their own community with different values or you can try to influence the Orchard team to move in a different direction.

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