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Community, Not Communism

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The Open Source movement is taking software development to new levels, opening coding opportunities to any geek who is willing and able to contribute code. Russel Pavlicek explores the nuances of the Open Source community here.
This article is excerpted from Embracing Insanity: Open Source Software Development.
This chapter is from the book

Some people look at the Open Source movement and complain that it resembles some form of commune. People are sharing code. There does not seem to be a notion of personal property (with respect to code, at least). And these free-software people keep talking about the evils of corporations that create closed proprietary software. To some people outside the movement, this sounds like some adaptation of communist thinking to the world of programming.

Although there may be superficial elements that might appear to resemble some things found in communist states, the whole is not a model of communism. In fact, the political and economic biases tend to be quite varied among the members of the Open Source world. It is not unusual to hear these various biases occasionally mentioned during electronic discussions. But these political slants are entirely secondary in Open Source. They are treated by the community the same way the corporate world treats discussions of hobbies: Discussion of them is fine as long as it does not get in the way of getting the job done, but they have no bearing on the task at hand.

Rather than exemplifying some new form of communism, the Open Source world is a model based on the scientific community. Instead of embodying some political or economic ideal, the Open Source community is the result of some basic philosophy and simple pragmatism applied to the task at hand. The focus is not on making others think and act like the geeks; rather, it is on allowing geeks to produce what the world needs.

Size Really Does Matter

Something that people new to the world of Open Source (usually called newbies) sometimes fail to appreciate is the sheer size and impact of the community. Most people have become aware of small pockets of geeks that might congregate in a university computer lab or a business data center. The group may get along well with each other, but the group is usually quite small, with little actual impact on the organization around it. A common mistake made by people on the outside is to dismiss the Open Source community as just a slightly larger but essentially inconsequential group of geeks. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

First, the community is big. Really big. How big? It is impossible to come up with absolute figures, but the number of programmers whose names appear in software contained in any Linux distribution is well into the thousands. Add to those authors the thousands more who have debugged and submitted patches for code. Many of these have isolated problems and suggested solutions, but their names may not appear attached to any particular program. And now add to that thousands more of the technical users who have used the code and identified problems.

Sometimes people say, "All this is well and good, but this group of hackers can't possibly compete with some of the huge commercial software companies in the world. After all, what can a group of volunteers hope to do when faced with the giants of the software industry? These companies have thousands of employees and millions of dollars to spend to further their businesses. This group of hackers doesn't even have a budget! How can this geek community even hope to compete?"

The truth of the matter is quite different. Commercial software companies have thousands of highly compensated employees. The Open Source community has tens of thousands of highly motivated software developers. Commercial software companies have millions of dollars to spend on development. The Open Source community has an unlimited budget; there is no point in time when someone will say, "We can't afford to do this."

But the real topper is this: The Open Source community is growing each and every day in every country on the planet at rates that no commercial developer can possibly match. For example, IDC reported that the number of Linux servers shipped in 1997 was trivial. By 1999, however, Linux server shipments swelled to become the second most popular in the United States.1 Every day, more and more talented programmers from every corner of the world join the community. And many countries that are only now beginning to develop their own programmers are beginning to do so on Open Source platforms by using Open Source code for examples and Open Source programming techniques. Many of these countries, such as India and China,2 like the concept of controlling their own technical destiny by having their own people work on the software which will become the backbone of their computer infrastructure.

The Open Source community only began to reach critical mass in the mid-1990s. Compared to most large commercial software entities, the Open Source community is the new kid on the block. The community, then, works hard at catching up with the products that the commercial world has already developed.

But some outsiders mistake this catch-up activity for a lack of creativity. Several analysts over the years have proclaimed that the focus on creating Open Source equivalents to closed-source applications demonstrates that the community is largely devoid of creative spirit. This allegation used to make many Open Source people laugh at the absurdity of the claim. The Open Source movement could never have progressed to its current stage without having a dedicated group of highly creative people. And, as the community moves swiftly to re-create the applications that closed source already has, more and more people begin to break new creative ground.

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