In Praise of Open Source Diversity

One of the great strengths of open source is that it offers users choice. You don't like one solution? Choose another. You don't like *any* solution, write your own (or pay for someone else to do it). Thus it is that many categories have...

Share

One of the great strengths of open source is that it offers users choice. You don't like one solution? Choose another. You don't like any solution, write your own (or pay for someone else to do it). Thus it is that many categories have several alternative offerings, all of them admirable applications, and all of them with passionate supporters.

That's particularly the case for open source content management system (CMS) sector, which boasts not one, not two, but three fine offerings: Drupal, Joomla and WordPress. The founder of the first of these, Dries Buytaert, has written a blog post that addresses an important issue:

At Drupal, we recently hired a temporary staff to help with the Drupal.org redesign. There is an understandable concern that the spirit of volunteerism will be lost or a volunteer project will be tainted when a paid staff is introduced. There are worries that a project's agenda will change to suit the needs of ‘privateers'. However, many projects that rely completely on volunteers fall short of what can be done by a paid staff. Some projects can't afford not to make use of the benefits that a full-time, focused staff can provide.

Within the Drupal project, we don't have a paid staff to advance the core software. However, many of the developers who contribute to critical parts of the Drupal code base make their living by building complex Drupal websites. Some Drupal developers are paid by customers to contribute their expertise to the Drupal project or are employed by companies ‘sponsoring' Drupal development. Tens of thousands of developers are working with Drupal today, and many of them contribute back to the project. Albeit different, neither Joomla or Drupal are exclusively a volunteer run project, and that is one of the reasons we've grown so big. Ditto for WordPress that gets a lot of help from Automattic.

It's an important moment in the evolution of a free software project when people get paid to work on some aspect of it, and it's right that there should be thorough debate on the matter. After all, there is a considerable body of evidence that paying people to do what they might otherwise have carried out for free actually results in less productivity.

Interestingly, this point is made in a comment to Buytaert's piece by none other than Brian Teeman, cofounder of Joomla:

Is the commercialization of a community project something to worry about? You say no but I say yes. Just because you start to pay someone for their work doesn't mean they will work harder, better or more efficiently than the volunteers that did the work before. The assumption that people are motivated to produce their best work by money is a faulty one. More people are motivated by satisfaction, enjoyment and recognition by their peers. That is what has got so many successful open source projects to the position they are in today and it is foolish to ignore that or to conclude that changing the successful formula is not something to worry about.

What's really great here is that the leader of one CMS projects comments directly on the blog post of another CMS leader. That's what you'd hope from open projects working in the same space, but it's still good to see. I also think it is rather healthy to hear that the two leaders differ here. As I mentioned at the start of this post, choice is central to free software, and that's not just a matter of software: it also refers to people's views. Just as proprietary monocultures bring with them great vulnerability, so open source diversity of this kind is a very real strength.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.