Community has always played a central role in the Open Source landscape, and the term ‘community’ is bandied around almost as much as ‘Web 2.0′. Unfortunately, as with ‘Web 2.0′, the term ‘community’ has become a vague descriptor for a collection of principles that represent similar things. As more and more disparate groups and organisations make use of any definition, meaning tends to be blurred by the exceptions to the rule.
It is interesting when you look back over the years at how community has played a role in the business and home consumerisation of Linux and Open Source. Once upon a time when we all had beards and a collection of 40 Slackware floppies, community was really all we had. No-one in the ‘real world’ had an appreciation of free software and Open Source, and as such the community stuck together to foster its own culture and identity. A key catalyst behind this development were Linux User Groups - these informal gatherings presented an environment in which people could talk to each other about things that most other people either didn’t know about or didn’t care about. You could meet others with the same priorities, concerns, desires and ambitions as your own, and this was an exciting prospect.
These pockets of community were by no means unique to the Open Source world; music communities have largely been the same. When I first started listening to metal, it was also very much not the mainstream. You couldn’t just walk into a record shop and pick up albums by your favourite bands, there were few magazines, no TV shows and very few organised groups. Like LUGs, pockets of interest sprung up such as metal nights and one-off gigs, and unwritten community meeting grounds sprung up in towns and cities across the country. Just like the Open Source community, the metal world became better organised and community leaders set forth to run local events and help people to meet each other to share this common interest. With these leaders, and support/communication channels such as the Internet, local bands, music shops and band rehearsal studios, the community grew consistently. Like many such communities, the leaders had no formal training - their hunch got them through it.
The commercialisation of community
Around the millennium, a number of large organisations saw something profitable in Linux and Open Source. Although niche technical communities had largely been ignored by big business, the Linux and Open Source train just continued to steam on and on, and board rooms across the world were buzzing with interest about how this exciting technology could bring in good profit margins. As these organisations started to embrace Open Source and rolled out their product campaigns, the community side was either ignored or simply not prioritised. From a traditional business perspective you can understand why - although Open Source, and particularly Linux, provided some incredibly well written, compelling technology with excellent cost and distribution options, the community side could simply not be controlled. In the eyes of a business driven by the traditional software model, it made far better sense to push the community to the side and simply employ a team of people to move the software in the corporate direction, suitably emblazoning it with the word ‘enterprise’ along the way.
Large organisations are fundamentally built on this premise of control. If you don’t have control of your products, your teams and your customers, you cannot invest in the next line of technology to keep you relevant. As such, all large software companies pay great attention to the bottom line. If you can keep your costs down, maximise sales and keep your customers happy, you are onto a winner. Open Source was proving to be a high quality technology with an already established team of (unpaid) developers, and a reputation that was piquing the interest of customers who had heard of the cost and stability benefits. With some suitable branding, Open Source presented an ideal product opportunity, and we started seeing big names such as IBM, Novell, HP, Oracle and Corel rolling onto the bandwagon, many preaching their support of ‘openness’.
The mistake a number of companies, both large and small have made when approaching Open Source is that they lack an understanding of the people who drive the technology. One fundamental concept that I have been teaching as I have taken my On the Front Line: Convincing People the Inconvincible advocacy talk around the UK is that if you don’t understand people, you cannot expect to fully understand Open Source. The problem is that understanding people is really hard, and a skill not typically employed by business. Any kind of strategy and competitive assessment is usually product and financials orientated, normally taking into account development, financing and marketing capabilities. The psychology and social structure of a bunch of disparate programmers who are not on your payroll is a pill just too difficult to swallow, and one that is usually farmed to the bottom of the ‘lets do this’ pile.
A few years ago this all changed when Ubuntu hit the scene. Funded by Mark Shuttleworth, a millionaire philanthropist with an impressive track record of contributing to and supporting charities, a number of notable Debian developers were employed by Shuttleworth for a then-unannounced project. This project was to become the Ubuntu distribution - a distribution founded upon a strong community structure, but with an economic model to make it a viable product for business.
Shuttleworth’s effort was interesting in that it approached the distribution model from the entirely opposite perspective. Instead of taking the Open Source software portfolio and lessening the community side in favour of a corporate product, Ubuntu was heavily pushing the community side with the plan on making it an economic asset later. To the cynical onlookers, Ubuntu was seen as an unsustainable millionaire’s plaything that would ultimately fail when the money run out. The traditional business world, and the Open Source business world kept an eye on this curious project to see how it fared.
Ubuntu has become a remarkably successful project, and one that has netted huge community support and increasing brand recognition. I am convinced that the reason for this success is that Shuttleworth placed an importance in understanding the community fabric behind Linux. He was well aware that the Debian project was a primary source of high quality engineering, policy and packaging, and he will have been aware that the contributors to Debian not only had an understanding of the technology, but a commitment to the ethics of Open Source; ethics that are very much a foundation of Ubuntu. Shuttleworth was also no-doubt aware that by employing the cream of the crop when it comes to Open Source development, he was employing people who would get excited about software, write quality code, blog about it and work insanely long hours.
Let’s get more open
With the explosion on interest around Ubuntu, the other distributors have responded suitably and we are now seeing more and more community-driven distributions. Although I cannot categorically state this for sure, I am positive that the huge success of Ubuntu has inspired the creation of OpenSuSE and Freespire, and the increasingly community-driven nature of Fedora. It is evident that with a strong community behind these distributions, they can indeed become better in terms of engineering and adoption. Fedora is a classic example of this - as it has become more and more community driven, the quality has grown further and further. It is now a very impressive distribution and one that has a comprehensive backbone of developers, documentation writers, translators and users.
From a corporate perspective, interestingly, the Ubuntu project is competing on slightly different terms to many of the others. If you take an organisation such as Novell, I get the impression that they have the brand but now want the community. Novell could sell ice to Eskimos on brand alone, but it seems like they are actively pursuing community adoption and support. Linspire are taking a seemingly similar approach with their recently announced Freespire distribution. The Ubuntu project are approaching it from a different tack however. With such a strong and vibrant community behind Ubuntu, I suspect the quest is now for brand recognition in business.
Which is easier to foster, brand or community? It is difficult to tell, but my bet is that brand is easier. Brand can be made more recognisable with the aid or PR, marketing and strong business and partner relationships. The science of brand is measurable and can be divided into boxes and spread out across your staff. The science of community however is far more difficult. Communities are delicate collections of people with varying opinions, experiences and prejudices (both positive and negative) on technologies and companies. Traditional uses of marketing and PR are entirely inappropriate for community relations, and it instead requires a deep understanding of community, people and a commitment to the principles that the community is ingrained in. If there is an attempt to subvert these principles, the relationship breaks down.
As an Open Source advocate, I am largely an advocate of process, and I advocate the use of software and policy that embodies that process. I am pleased to see the importance of community playing an increased role in the strategy of organisations. Over the years I have advocated to various vendors and distributors what I considered seemingly obvious concepts and methods of encouraging community adoption. What experience has taught me is that these concepts are not obvious, and translating them into processes that work within the constraints of an organisation are the bigger challenge. This becomes even more complex when you take into account the ego, ambitions and measurable outcomes involved in IT.
You know, I say this in a lot of my articles, but the Open Source world gets more and more interesting as time goes on. With companies like Canonical, Novell, Red Hat and Linspire making some wise decisions, this can only benefit the users of our software more and more. This is a good thing for users, and this increased userbase translates into customers when the ecomonic model fits correctly. Open Source is fundamentally social software, and understanding the social fabric behind it is proving to be an economically sound principle as well as an ethically sound principle. Who knows what is next?
So what do you think? Is the community becoming more important? Is this the right direction? Where will we go in the future? Scribe your thoughts below…