Wanted: More Open Source Research

by Doc Searls

Look up open source. You'll get 203,000,000 results. How come?

While credit goes to many, including Bruce Perens, who chose the term, I see widespread usage largely as the direct result of a "call to the community" by Eric S. Raymond on 8 February 1998. Plus the runaway successes of Linux, Apache and thousands of other open source code bases, and the Internet they all run on. (And the Net is essentially a pile of open and free protocols.)

Look up RSS. Right now you get 3,350,000,000 results. Nearly all refer to Really Simple Syndication. Dave Winer gave it that name, and its meaning to publishers of all kinds. Dave was also instrumental in making podcasting happen. In September 2004, a lookup of podcasts yielded 24 results. Today it brings up 64,000,000. (Plus over 105,000,000 for podcast.)

Look up Internet (1,590,000,000 results), Linux (302,000,000), Apache (91,800,000), OpenID (28,000,000), Web (2,870,000,000) and anything else that's useful, open and free.

I bring these up (and any of us could bring up many more) because (as ESR put it way back when) they have use value rather than sale value. And that use value has enormous leverage. You can make far more money because of these free things than with them. (Something JP Rangaswami and I, among others, call because effects.)

I also bring them up because this kind of leverage is thick with a weird irony: it is both obvious and poorly understood. it is so taken for granted that we neither study it nor learn enough from failures to recognize it.

Take the case of Moveable Type vs. Wordpress. Back in 2004, Moveable Type was an up-and-coming blog authoring system, developed and owned by SixApart. As Mark Pilgrim put it in Freedom 0,

Movable Type came with source code, so hack-minded individuals could add features like threaded comments or IP throttling. You weren’t free to redistribute complete versions of your hacked copy of Movable Type, but you could release patches, and that was free enough. It had a well-designed plug-in architecture, so it could be customized with a dizzying array of third-party plug-ins. You weren’t free to redistribute Movable Type with those plug-ins pre-installed, but you could install the plug-ins separately, and that was free enough.

But SixApart decided to close down Moveable Type and to charge for a bunch of stuff, including comment moderation. A lot of us told the SixApart folks that closing Movable Type was a bad idea, and that instead they should open it up the rest of the way. But they didn't. And, as Mark pointed out in his Freedom 0 post, Wordpress was there to take up the slack:

Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program, for any purpose. WordPress gives me that freedom; Movable Type does not. It never really did, but it was "free enough" so we all looked the other way, myself included. But Movable Type 3.0 changes the rules, and prices me right out of the market. I do not have the freedom to run the program for any purpose; I only have the limited set of freedoms that Six Apart chooses to bestow upon me, and every new version seems to bestow fewer and fewer freedoms. With Movable Type 2.6, I was allowed to run 11 sites. In 3.0, that right will cost me $535.

That was in 2004. Now look up Wordpress. You get 306,000,000 results. Movable Type gets 15,800,000, and that includes what Gutenberg invented. MT is open source now, but it's on the late side. Wordpress is a juggernaut.

It would have been nice, back in 2004, to say to Ben and Mena Trott, who created and controlled Moveable Type, "Don't just trust open source weenies like us. Look at this research here."

But there was no research then. In fact there still isn't — not the kind that makes a strong business case.

I bring this up because I'm still trying to make the case for open source, even inside the development community I lead. And it ain't easy. The obvious is not apparent. "Just tell me how I'll make money by giving my code away," they tell me. Pointing at cases like Moveable Type's will help. But research will help more.

Maybe it already does, and I'm just not aware of it.

I know about http://opensource.mit.edu, and there are some good papers there. I know about Ibiblio's work, and Yochai Benkler's Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm and The Wealth of Networks, both of which make a great case for what he calls "commons-based peer production". Also Karim Lakhani's work, and Eric von Hippel's. (And others, including colleagues, that I'm neglecting by not mentioning, but I want to hurry and get this up.) Those mostly cover how code and other open goods are made, rather than the business effects of opening code and letting nature take its course.

Chris Anderson made a good run at the business case with Free! The Future of a Radical Price, and there are helpful pieces such as Benjamin Edelman's Priced and Unpriced Online Markets. But the obvious is still not apparent.

Maybe that's because it can't be. Or maybe it's because it's not easy to decide how one will make money on because effects. You still need a with, right? Customers have to pay you for something. What is it? Advertising? Google has sucked most of the oxygen out of that room. Consulting? Can be nice, but it doesn't scale well. What are the others?

We need more answers than we've got. Suggestions (as well as corrections)?

Better yet, give me research designs. Or improvements on existing ones.

There are other large issues at stake here too. For example, building out the Internet. How should it be done?Friends with connections to the Obama administration explain to me (for example) that "They not only don't get openness like you'd think they should; they actually think verticalization is Good Thing." Also that they don't care if the phone companies "stuff the Internet genie back in the pre-1984 bottle," as long as AT&T and Verizon provide "lots of jobs." More to the point, they don't see how the open Net is a tide that lifts all economic boats, benefitting all companies and not just phone and cable ones. In fact, they see no cost at all to an all-private Internet in which AT&T, Comcast and Verizon replace television with a vast new "content" business. To them the Net is mostly about entertainment distribution, and familiar big distributors provide "lots of jobs" too.

If anything, the Obama administration is more connected to Hollywood and the copyright absolutists than the Bush administration was. ACTA, anyone?

Maybe I'm being an alarmist here, but I don't think the situation has changed a whole lot since I posted Saving the Net here more than four years ago.