June 5, 2009, 2:10 am
Someone recently asked me a few question about corporate participation in open source communities and I thought I'd share my thoughts on this topic here.
Are there differences between an open source project done for a corporation and one done for personal reasons?
There are many different ways to run an open source project, led by a corporation or by someone else. Some projects that are run by corporations have few outside contributors. This is often the case with projects that require copyright assignment (i.e. contributors have to assign their copyright to the corporation). These projects may not gain all the benefits of a true open source community, such as outside contributions or high levels of peer review. However, they may still be very successful projects and may have high levels of quality.
Projects done by a corporation may have better planning and may have more resources than other projects. When a corporation, especially a large one, starts or becomes involves in a project it can also give credibility to the project and attract a lot of interest to the project. This means that projects done by corporations may have a bigger impact and might also be more visible in terms of publicity.
How do corporations successfully utilize an open source community?
Corporations can benefit from an open source community in many ways. For example, they can often find people who will review their code or make code contributions. If people become excited about what the corporation does, they might also spread the word and create viral marketing for the corporation. Establishing a community around one's project is often also a good way to identify people to hire since you already have experience working with them and know their capabilities.
How do open source communities successfully utilize their corporate relationships?
Corporations can make several unique contributions. For example, large corporations can use their name to attract attention to a project and give it credibility. Furthermore, corporations have some capabilities that personal contributors often don't have access. They may have special testing equipment (such as servers with thousands of CPUs or hard drives) or access to a testing lab where a professional usability test can be done. Finally, corporations can sponsor developer conferences, which are typically very effective means for the community to come together and work on activities together.
It is important for projects to remember that corporations are not charities and that they will invest in an open source project for a reason. Therefore, they have to ensure that the corporation will get tangible outcomes from their involvement or sponsorship, otherwise they may not stay involved in the long run.
What are the risks for a corporation when working with an open source community?
One risk is that the code (or other form of contribution) is not accepted. However, this is a risk any contributor to a project faces. Before making any sort of contribution, it is therefore important to become familiar with the project and its culture. Every project has their own "do's" and "don'ts" that have to be followed.
Another risk is that a corporation will invest in a community project that later on is abandoned by the community. However, in this case, the corporation could take the lead and continue to maintain the project.
What are the risks for an open source community when working with a corporation?
One potential risk is that the corporation will assert too much control over the project. It's important for projects to ensure that the community as a whole has influence over the direction of a project rather than one particular player.
Are certain¬†certifications needed in order for someone to¬†participate¬†in open source projects for a corporation?
Certifications are not needed to get involved in or start a project. However, it is important to become familiar with the open source community and the project one wants to contribute to. A good first step is to read the book Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel which is available online. As a next step, the community in which someone wants to get involved in should be studied, for example by reading the mailing list archives. This will help to become familiar with the culture of a project as well as the mechanisms to contribute to the project.
How¬†do open source communities communicate¬†and¬†collaborate with corporations?
In the best case, employees from corporations would interact in the project like any other contributor. That is, they should use the existing communication channels, such as mailing lists, IRC or developer gatherings. Many companies are good at working "with the community" but the ideal scenario is for a company to be part of the community and to work "in the community", just like other contributors. This is the most effective way for them to make changes to the code and project.
Of course, not every corporation will get involved in a project directly. That's why it makes sense for projects to collaborate with corporations in other ways. For example, projects can talk directly to companies to get samples of their hardware in order to add support for them in their software. Projects can also work directly with corporations to find out how their project can better meet the needs of enterprise users.
What are your thoughts on this topic?