From the category archives:

Open Source

Guidelines for Open Source Participation in Business

by Teresa Valdez Klein on May 3, 2007

Companies often seek to share their success and reduce tax liability by giving to or establishing charities. In addition to being good for the world, this well-established practice has a significant public relations upside.

Another permutation of this phenomenon is participation in open source communities. One of the real upsides of open source technology is flexibility. Businesses can get under the hood and make changes that advance their own interests. In some cases, companies make significant improvements in the technology itself.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that sharing these improvements would be to the company’s detriment. Why give competitors the keys to the proverbial kingdom? But in some cases, the upsides of community involvement far outweigh the potential boon to the competition.

As Jon Udell wrote a couple of years ago:

Nurturing the open source commons isn’t something you do for altruistic reasons. Enlightened self-interest is the real motivation. Like the Internet itself, the modern enterprise now relies on the fruits of the most successful open source projects. But the commoditization of operating systems, compilers, and servers only scratches the surface of what’s possible. All sorts of infrastructure software can benefit from the open source model. Business software, not all of which is necessarily proprietary, is ripe for commoditization too.

To advance these agendas, developers will have to learn to be good open source citizens. Yes, they’ll sometimes make errors in judgment, and they won’t always achieve the desired outcomes. But on the world stage, both failures and successes can loom larger than in the corporate cubicle. Developers who plug into the reputation-driven meritocracy of open source — while advancing the goals of your business — are a force to be reckoned with.

So how can companies determine whether they can benefit from sharing their modifications to an open source technology? Here are my rules of thumb:

  • Is the project compatible with the main community’s efforts?
  • Do your modifications make the software vastly more efficient, flexible or understandable?
  • Are your modifications more than a simple customization for a particular internal need?
  • Does your company want to recruit more talented geeks?
  • Would this contribution benefit the community at large more than it would benefit your competition?

If you answered yes to all the above questions, chances are that your developments are worth sharing with the world. If you need an example of how this works, just look at Facebook’s involvement with the PHP community.


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