Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Foundations discussions

There continues to be an active discussion over Mikeal Rogers's essay about Apache and git, which I wrote about a few days ago.

Here's (some of) what's been going on:

  • Simon Phipps wrote a widely read essay in Computerworld UK about the notion of an open source foundation, as separate from the open source infrastructure, and relates the story of a project which suffered greatly because it hadn't established itself with the support of a larger entity:
    the global library community embraced Koha and made it grow to significant richness. When the time came, the original developers were delighted to join a US company that was keen to invest in - and profit from - Koha. Everything was good until the point when that company decided that, to maximise their profit, they needed to exert more control over the activities of the community.
    A detailed article at the Linux Weekly News website provides much more of the details of this story. Phipps's point is that part of these problems arose because the developers of the project didn't engage in the open discussion of the long term management of the project that would have occurred had they hosted their project at one of the established Open Source foundations such as Apache or the Software Freedom Conservancy.
  • Stephen O'Grady also wrote an essay on the difference between foundations and infrastructure acknowledging that "foundations who reject decentralized version control systems will fall behind", but further asserting that:
    GitHub is a center of gravity with respect to development, but it is by design intensely non-prescriptive and inclusive, and thus home to projects of varying degrees of quality, maturity and seriousness.

    [ ... ] GitHub, in other words, disavows responsibility for the projects hosted on the site. Foundations, conversely, explicitly assume it, hence their typically strict IP policies. These exclusive models offer a filter to volume inclusive models such as GitHub’s.

    [ ... ] If you’re choosing between one project of indeterminate pedigree hosted at GitHub and an equivalent maintained by a foundation like Apache, the brand is likely to be a feature.

  • Mikeal Rogers, whose original essay kicked off the entire discussion, has since followed up with some subsequent thoughts about foundations and institutions:
    Simon believes it is the job of an institution (in this case a foundation) to protect members from each other and from the outside world. In the case of legal liabilities this makes perfect sense. In the case of community participation this view has become detrimental.

    If you believe, as I do, that we have undertaken a cultural shift in open source then you must re-examine the need for institutional governance of collaboration. If the values we once looked to institutions like Apache to enforce are now enforced within the culture by social contract then there is no need for an institution to be the arbiter of collaboration between members.

  • Ben Collins-Sussman, a longtime Apache member, chimes in with his thoughts on the value of the Apache Foundation, pointing to the explicit codification of "community":
    the ASF requires that each community have a set of stewards (“committers”), which they call a “project management committee”; that communities use consensus-based discussions to resolve disputes; that they use a standardized voting system to resolve questions when discussion fails; that certain standards of humility and respect are used between members of a project, and so on. These cultural traditions are fantastic, and are the reason the ASF provides true long-term sustainability to open source projects.
  • Jim Jagielski, another longtime Apache member, adds his thoughts, observing that it is important to not get caught up in statistics about popularity, adoption rate, etc., but to concentrate on communities, culture, and communication aspects:
    The ASF doesn't exist to be a "leader"; it doesn't exist to be a "voice of Open Source"; it doesn't exist to be cool, or hip, or the "place to be" or any of that.

    [ ... ]

    It exists to help build communities around those codebases, based on collaboration and consensus-based development, that are self-sustaining; communities that are a "success" measured by health and activity, not just mere numbers.

  • Ceki Gulcu (poorly transliterated by me, sorry), a longtime Open Source Java developer, observes that what one person sees as consensus and meritocratic collaboration, another might see as endless discussion and fruitless debate:
    Apache projects cannot designate a formal project leader. Every committer has strictly equal rights independent of past or future contributions. This is intended to foster consensus building and collaboration ensuring projects' long term sustainability. Worthy goals indeed! However, one should not confuse intent with outcome. I should also observe that committer equality contradicts the notion of meritocracy which Apache misrepresents itself as.

    As I have argued in the past, the lack of fair conflict resolution or timely decision making mechanisms constitute favorable terrain for endless arguments.

It seems to be a fairly fundamental debate: some believe that the open source foundations provide substantial benefit, others feel that they reflect a time that no longer exists, and are no longer necessary.

Overall, it's been a fascinating discussion, with lots of viewpoints from lots of different perspectives.

I'll continue to be interested to follow the debate.

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