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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

Enabling By Removing Obstructions

Last week I was in Paris as a guest of The Document Foundation to speak at their first annual LibreOffice Conference. It was my honour to make the opening remarks at the opening reception, hosted by the government of the Paris region. Here's what I said.

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Good evening. It's a pleasure to be back in the Ile de France, especially with so many old friends. In my days at Sun Microsystems, I was privileged to be able to work with many remarkable people - including the founders and core developers of The Document Foundation. Friends from [French FOSS associations] APRIL & AFUL are also here; and of course members of the legacy StarOffice community in all its colours are here from throughout Europe and even further afield.

These days, my affiliation is different. As well as helping run a startup called ForgeRock, making identity management software as pure open source, I am also a director of the Open Source Initiative, the stewards of the Open Source Definition. It's in this role I'm honoured to open your reception tonight.

It seems hard to believe - since it's already one of the most used free software programs in the world - but it's been just a year since the creation of LibreOffice. There is a way of thinking which assumes a project with the importance of LibreOffice must have a sponsor; that the path taken in the history of StarOffice, from which LibreOffice is ultimately derived, must be copied in order for the project to survive.

But here's the truth; LibreOffice didn't need a commercial "white knight" to "save" it. What it needed was two things; developers willing to collaborate, and a community willing to contribute both time and money. It turned out LibreOffice had both.

Open Source takes more than source code alone. Open Source is what happens when people who share a serious interest in some software choose to align a part of their individual self-interest and work together as equals, each paying their own way as they do so. For an open source project to succeed, the most important ingredient is developers who could and would write the software alone but realise it will be easier and better to work together. Where do those developers come from?

Overwhelmingly, they are from businesses which make a living from the code, directly or indirectly. While every project has numerous volunteers with non-commercial motivations, the most common source of motivation is commercial, either directly or by employment. The way open source works might make it look as if the developers are selfless volunteers motivated purely by delight in the code, but that's just a trick of the light.

Now, don't misunderstand what I'm saying. Most of the open source developers I know have a great community spirit and are generous and giving to the point of philanthropy. But that's rarely their primary motivation; it's just that those are the sort of people who work well at open source. People see their genuine good-will and assume that's their motivation.

So what does it take to create a strong, successful open source community like LibreOffice? First and foremost, there has to be a business value to support the motivations of the developers. That's why I reject the idea that any project like this needs "rescuing". What is normally needed is the removal of obstacles to successful collaboration by motivated people. Obstacles like corporate project managers trying to inject corporate controls into community life. Obstacles like well-intentioned but endlessly noisy "bikeshedders", talking about what should happen instead of doing it.

A year ago, the Document Foundation created a project with as few obstacles as possible to the success of LibreOffice, and motivated developers moved in to make code happen. The result? 25 million users, millions of changed lines of code and a bustling new developer conference here in Paris.

This is the lesson I'd like to leave policy-makers. The best facilitation for open source is to buy it. To make a market that knows about it, wants it and can specify it. To create an environment that makes it easy to benefit from software freedom. To make sure that government procurement rules give it a fair chance. When you do this, you create jobs and communities as well as great software. So I applaud the Paris Region for doing these things, and encourage more and more of it to happen!


Follow Simon as @webmink on Twitter and Identi.Ca and also on Google+


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