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Do You Grok Open Source?

Open source owes its success to a large group of people who have a shared set of values about which they feel strongly

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in the 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, coined the term "grok." In the story the word was part of the Martian language:

'Grok' means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed - to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science - and it means as little to us (because we are from Earth) as color means to a blind man.

Today, many people use the term grok synonymously with understand. To grok is much more. The true meaning is lost on many people, people who may have heard of the term without reading any Heinlein. Fortunately, most of the participants in the open source community truly grok open source.

Open source owes its success to a large group of people who have a shared set of values about which they feel strongly. Mainstream society probably lacks any real understanding of the things that matter to them in the world of open source. It's ironic that the term came from a fictitious Martian language. Most people not in the know look at devoted open source developers as if they hailed from the red planet.

Their first question is indubitably: "Why would highly skilled people give away the fruit of their difficult labor?" Followed by, "If it's free, can it be any good?"

I suspect many of the people who ask that question have, at some point, participated in a service organization of some sort. I wonder if anyone asked them why they donated time to the local Rotary Club or spent their time helping to build houses for the local Habitat for Humanity.

Maybe the comparison doesn't hold up, as some people might not equate the nobility of sheltering those without homes or providing educational opportunities with the same degree of altruism as giving away software.

What if that software helped provide affordable computers to children in developing nations? Or made it possible for small businesses to become profitable where they otherwise couldn't be competitive? What if that software was used to analyze trends that educate us about global warming or conduct analysis to help cure terminal illnesses? Does that put open source developers on equal footing with accountants and bankers building single-family homes on the weekend?

Not every open source project is noble. Often it's just the best way for a software engineer or group of engineers to solve a problem, leveraging the work of others and drawing improvements from colleagues.

Why do I care whether people get the nuances of the open source community? A recent IDG report, "Open Source Business Models 2007-2011 Forecast," attributed the size of the open source market in 2006 to be $1.8 billion dollars with revenue reaching $5.8 billion in 2011. That's a lot of suits mingling with the free software guys and there's bound to be a collision between factions.

These new participants are entering a community built on certain customs and a code of conduct. They have built this community using a common set of values that have spawned the Linux kernel and the Apache Web server. These are important technologies that could only have accomplished their success in this global transparent ecosystem.

Michael Tiemann, the founder of perhaps the first open source software company, Cygnus Solutions, and now president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), made a statement showing his commitment to the "stewardship" of the open source brand and chiding some of these commercial open source newcomers. In a stern blog post he called out certain companies for what he interprets as a misuse of the Open Source Definition and the open source "brand":

Open Source has grown up. Now it is time for us to stand up. I believe that when we do, the vendors who ignore our norms will suddenly recognize that they really do need to make a choice: to label their software correctly and honestly, or to license it with an OSI-approved license that matches their open source label.

While the Open Source Initiative has little formal power, its approval of your open source software license carries considerable weight within the open source ranks.

I know the struggles of developing commercial in open source companies all too well. I have had the opportunity to help bring commercial, proprietary software to market with limited success. I also had the opportunity to partially open source software under a pseudo open source license (which lacked OSI approval). Currently I am the VP of Community and the open source conscience for Zenoss, Inc. (www.zenoss.com), a developer of a purely open source (GPL-licensed) systems management tool. My experience has shown that the greatest success has to go to the purist of the potential solutions.

Let me offer these parting words of advice based on my own experience and observations. Within the open source ecosystem there exists a certain open source karma. History tells us that companies that have good open source practices and community participation flourish. Paragons include Red Hat, MySQL, and even Sun (whose fortunes are turning on the heels of open source Java and OpenSolaris initiatives). A word to the wise: as you join the open source community, snake oil salesmen and hucksters need not apply, it's a transparent society and while you don't need to necessarily grok open source, you need to respect and understand the values of open source to be successful.

Additional Resources
•  "Will the Real Open Source CRM Please Stand Up? Michael Tiemann, Open Source Initiative Blog:
www.opensource.org/node/163
•  "Open Source Software Business Models 2007-2011 Forecast: A Preliminary View":
www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prUS20711507

This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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