The idea of a communal society has always been suspect. From the nihilism of the nineteenth century Fourierists to the wide-eyed optimism of the hippie communes of the 1960s, they are seen as somewhat well meaning, but also destructive and naive in their assessment of human nature.
Still, go on the Internet today and you can’t click or swipe on anything without hitting an open source community. Starting with basic technologies like Linux and Apache all they way up to highly specialized ones like Spark and Cloud Foundry, it’s hard to find any core technology that anybody truly owns anymore.
Yet the technology industry continues to prosper and grow. The trick that it pulled off was to see that incredible value can be unlocked through communal effort and that value can be used for proprietary purposes. In the years to come, that’s something that every industry will have to learn. Here are three key aspects what makes open source communities valuable.
Creating Universal Value For Proprietary Purposes
When Linux, an open source operating system, first came out it in the early 1990s, it was viewed, alternatively, with amazement and disdain. Many in the developer community were enthralled with a product which they could customize and improve at will, while Microsoft, whose Windows software largely controlled the market, considered it a cancer.
Yet over the years it became clear that there was great value in building proprietary products on top of Linux. By 2000, IBM was openly supporting Linux and even began donating patents to protect it. These days, it considers open source a key element of its business strategy, especially with regard to cloud computing.
“We built Bluemix as a platform on top of open source technologies such as Cloud Foundry, and Docker, which made it far easier to set up, run and integrate with other services,” Dr. Angel Diaz, IBM’s VP of Cloud Architecture and Technology, told me. “Also, because it is open source based, customers can port their applications to other platforms, which gives them peace of mind.”
Chris DiBona, Director of Open Source at Google, sees open source as a way to grow market share quickly and stay close to customers. “We released Android as an open source product because we knew that was the fastest way to grow adoption, which enabled us to preserve the relationships with customers for businesses like search, maps and gmail,” he says.
Establishing Clear Governance
Many people assume that open source communities are a free-for all, with everybody chiming in and making changes at will, yet nothing can be further from the truth. Many open source communities have clear standards for governance, with varying degrees of control and engagement with the community at large.
Some projects, like Android and WordPress, are tightly controlled by the companies that originated them, Google and Automattic, respectively. They manage the community fairly tightly, accepting patches, revisions and improvements as they see fit and providing a vision for where they think the technology should go.
Another option is to release software on a hosting platform like Github, which helps carry some of the burden of governance, but also makes it easier for a project to “fork,” meaning that someone can create a new version of the software and take it in another direction.
A third option is to use an open source foundation, like Linux or Apache. These, which grew out of the open source projects from which they took their names, provide a more complete governance structure, but offer the originator of the software much less influence on the future direction of the project.
Google’s Dibona suggests that it really comes down to how strong your opinion is of what direction you want the technology to go. If you have a very clear vision, then it’s best to keep leadership closer to home and engage with the community directly.
Forging A Strong Community
Clearly the most crucial element of any open source project is to build a high quality community around it that is actively engaged. IBM’s Diaz also stresses that it is also critical that the community is seen as a meritocracy and doesn’t become dominated by just a handful of vendors, which increases the likelihood of a project forking.
What’s interesting about open communities is that the principles in which they operate are diametrically opposed to how a traditional organization functions. In a traditional organization, a strong central authority is a stabilizing force, but in an open source community, it’s important to have a diversity of voices.
To understand why, think about a proprietary project like Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. Because it is 100% owned by Apple, strong management systems need to be in place to coordinate everything. If you try to do that in an open source community though, a dissatisfied faction is likely to break off and create a competing project.
DiBona stresses that one key to successfully open sourcing is that you need to understand that “once it’s open source, the community can always take the project where they want it to go,” no matter what governance model you choose. So it’s crucial to attract strong developers, help them understand the project and find where they can best make a contribution.
A Model For The Future
Clearly, open source communities are not the only ways for businesses to work together in areas of common interest. Industry associations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute work diligently to promote the interests of their members, but tend to focus more on lobbying and regulation than on innovation.
Yet we need more cooperation in the pre-competitive stages of new technologies. Consider that the journal Nature recently noted that the average scientific paper today has four times as many authors as in 1950. The work they are doing is also far more interdisciplinary and done at greater distances than in the past.
Today, the ability to collaborate is becoming a key competitive advantage and open source communities are a prime example of that. However, there are other models, such as consortiums like the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research which is developing next generation batteries and the manufacturing hubs that the US government has set up.
What’s becoming clear is that every industry will eventually have to learn the same trick the tech industry has. The future, in large part, will be made of proprietary business built on top of communal technologies.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com