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Thursday, 31 January 2008 11:30

Money, money, money... and FOSS

Open source software is developed for a variety of reasons, with the starting point often being the need to fill a need which the creator of a package faces. It's known as scratching your own itch.

These days, according to US statistics, around 40 per cent of open source programmers are in paid jobs so the question of working for nothing but internal reasons doesn't really arise. Another 10 to 15 per cent get a pay cheque from an open source company - and don't even know where it has come from.

This morning at the Australian national Linux conference, keynote speaker Stormy Peters raised the question - would they do it again if there was no monetary reward?

Peters works for a company named OpenLogic in the United States which acts as a middleman between open source projects and companies. If someone needs a feature in an open source package or a bug fix, then the company gets it done, often by people from the original project.

As an early adopter of open source, Peters was responsible for the open source strategy, policy and business practices at HP.

She examined the internal and external motivations that drive open source developers, drawing on data from other unrelated projects.

Peters cited one study where children were given painting tools and then rewarded; another group was not rewarded. Later on when the group which had been rewarded was asked to resume painting, they showed a reluctance to do so unless the rewards were provided.

But in the case of the group which was not rewarded, they showed no reluctance to paint again - they were simply doing it for the fun of it.

Another example she gave was that of daycare in Israel where parents were told that they would be charged fees if they were late to pick up their children; this, however, did not deter the parents who began to treat the late fees as some kind of payment for childcare. The penalty did not change their behaviour one iota.

Peters said the main internal motivations for developing open source software were that the process was: interesting, involved learning something new, was creative, served to scratch an itch, enabled one to learn new skills, enabled one to show off, sometimes brought fame and involved doing the right thing.

She referred to Richard Matthew Stallman when mentioning the last motivation; RMS was the man who set out on a lone journey back in 1984 to create a totally free operating system. These days, the open source crowd doesn't have much time for him.

Peters cited the good and bad sides of companies being involved in open source - when they were involved, they wanted to influence the project in a direction they felt to be more profitable, no matter whether the developers liked it or not.

And there was also the little matter of open source people having to dress neatly, attend meetings and join email lists on which formal business language had to be used.

"when a company is involved, you basically end up writing code," she said. "You have to create things the company way, not your own way. Developers ofetn get frustrated."

As an example, she said an open source developer may go in to work on a weekend to fix a bug for a customer, simply because his employer has told him that he has to concentrate on the release of the company's product during normal hours.

And instead of being praised for doing this, his manager could end up asking him why he did not work on the product release when he came in on the weekend!

She asked developers among the audience - a group that included people from a good many countries, not just Australia - to indicate whether they would do the same work as they were doing now if there was no money involved; a majority indicated it wouldn't make a difference.

That does tend to stretch things a bit. One would prefer to instead believe the words of Dirk Hohndel, Intel's chief of technology for Linux and open source, when he said yesterday: "The main reason for going open source is to make a buck."

Peters ended her talk by exhorting the audience to help corporations do the right thing. "Show them why open source software is so successful," she said.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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