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Chris Holt [opinions]

The massive failure of FOSS [foss] [harvard-business-review] [open-source-success] [failure]

“The open source software movement has been one of the successes of the digital age” or so says Clay Shirky of New York University's Graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review. Yes, sure, but he's just buttering us up.

Mr Shirky then goes on to mention the positive press Linux and Apache receive in business publications. Subsequently he then trashes the whole open source movement.

Mr. Shirky is writing in a piece called "Breakthrough Ideas for 2007". I'm not sure a small piece on open source is appropriate as a Breakthrough for 2007, maybe 10 years ago; and quite frankly I expected quite a bit more from the Harvard Business Review which in general is an outstanding business journal.

But there it is, Mr Shirky stating the enormous number of failures in the open source movement. He points out that has more than 100,000 open source projects open for collaboration and use and indicated that only a few of them have more than one hundred downloads and most have little activity... this he equates with failure. I.e, those projects that have few contributions or downloads can be considered failures. “A project was proposed but nothing happened.”

But he doesn't stop there. He then continues with the thought that “the vast majority of open source projects are failures” and the media must be wrong for emphasizing the successes of the movement.

If you are in a business that is considering open source software, according to Mr. Shirky you should run for the hills. “Open Systems are a profound threat not because they out succeed commercial firms but also because they outfail them.”

All is not lost however as he goes on to say that the cost of trying new open source systems is low so that the risk is low and therefore it can be useful. He goes to get lost in a social networking example and ends with the thought that if businesses can harness the volunteer efforts of developers who like to learn and experiment for experience sake... go ahead as it makes business sense to exploit.

I read this article several times and have this odd feeling it's some kind of obscure attempt at undermining the value of FOSS. It's obvious that this educator has not researched his subject very well. He needs to look beyond the narrow business journal headlines. I'll bet that he runs his laptop on Windows and has never heard of Ubuntu. He obviously doesn't understand that all those projects on SourceForge aren't a bunch of independent proprietary projects, but a collection of ideas, and innovation. The success is that there are 140,000 projects posted out into the open to stimulate possibility, dialog, collaboration and occasionally some useful code will get picked up. It's about sharing and working together and providing alternatives.

No mention of Joomla or Drupal, Word Press, Zencart or any of the 100s of successful and very useful open source applications, servers, desktop operating systems, mobile apps that have been used to help create many successful businesses.

As far as failures go, I wonder if he has looked at how often the large proprietary vendors have been sued by customers for failed enterprise systems developments, or how often Windows servers crash compared to Apache.

The Harvard Business Review panel of editors missed this one, me thinks!


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