Economist on open-source

This week’s issue of The Economist has an interesting article on open source called Open, but not as usual (subscription required). It’s not all positive, here are some paragraphs:

As “open-source” models move beyond software into other businesses, their limitations are becoming apparent.EVERY time internet users search on Google, shop at Amazon or trade on eBay, they rely on open-source software—products that are often built by volunteers and cost nothing to use. More than two-thirds of websites are hosted using Apache, an open-source product that trounces commercial rivals. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia with around 2.6m entries in more than 120 languages, gets more visitors each day than the New York Times’s site, yet is created entirely by the public. There is even an open-source initiative to develop drugs to treat diseases in poor countries. (…) However, it is unclear how innovative and sustainable open source can ultimately be. The open-source method has vulnerabilities that must be overcome if it is to live up to its promise. For example, it lacks ways of ensuring quality and it is still working out better ways to handle intellectual property. (…) Its advantage is that anyone can contribute; the drawback is that sometimes just about anyone does. This leaves projects open to abuse, either by well-meaning dilettantes or intentional disrupters. Constant self-policing is required to ensure its quality.

Then they go on to tell about the whole Wikipedia story.

One reason why open source is proving so successful is because its processes are not as quirky as they may first seem. In order to succeed, open-source projects have adopted management practices similar to those of the companies they vie to outdo. The contributors are typically motivated less by altruism than by self-interest. And far from being a wide-open community, projects often contain at their heart a small close-knit group. (…) Projects that fail to cope with open source’s vulnerabilities usually fall by the wayside. Indeed, almost all of them meet this end. Of the roughly 130,000 open-source projects on SourceForge.net, an online hub for open-source software projects, only a few hundred are active, and fewer still will ever lead to a useful product. The most important thing holding back the open-source model, apparently, is itself. (…) There are two doubts about its staying power. The first is how innovative it can remain in the long run. Indeed, open source might already have reached a self-limiting state, says Steven Weber, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of “The Success of Open Source” (Harvard University Press, 2004). “Linux is good at doing what other things already have done, but more cheaply—but can it do anything new? Wikipedia is an assembly of already-known knowledge,” he says. The second doubt is whether the motivation of contributors can be sustained. Companies are good at getting people to rise at dawn for a day’s dreary labour. But the benefit of open-source approaches is that they can tap into a far larger pool of resources essentially at no cost. Once the early successes are established, it is not clear that the projects can maintain their momentum, says Christian Alhert, the director of Openbusiness.cc, (..)

Good stuff. As always, a subscription to The Economist is highly recommended. I enjoy the dead tree version every week :)

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