30 June 2008

Free As In Rider

As if the announcements last week didn’t short enough neural circuits, it was also Symbian’s tenth anniversary, so the week ended with the whole staff of Symbian UK partying, as Prince never sang, like it was 1998. I really needed a weekend of recovery in order to be able to reflect with any clarity on the general response to the plan.

I’m going to ignore the positive reactions - it looks like most people think it’s a great conception and have wished us well - beyond just saying Thanks. More interesting are the areas of our communication where a few packets got dropped and commentators ended up getting the detail not quite right. (To be clear - that’s our fault.) And the areas where observers have been most openly skeptical. A bit of skepticism is totally understandable - apart from the fact that it makes good reading one only has to look at the history of big companies talking about open source software to see why. The largest areas of doubt or uncertainty seem to be as follows.

Whether ‘open’ really means open

We gave a timetable which said the full platform would be available under a standard open source license (the EPL) within two years or so. A couple of things could have been much clearer about this.

To start with, it doesn’t mean people have to wait two years before they can access source code. In fact you can think of the plan as being in three stages. Stage One: between now and the regulatory approval of the transaction, during which time nothing changes. Stage Two: once the Foundation starts operations, let’s say some time early next year, at which point the source code will be available to all Foundation Members. Stage Three: the code gets released under the EPL to all (including non-Members). The transition from Two to Three should more likely be a progressive process, incidentally, rather than a single big-bang.

Anyone who’s looking for the catch could read the sequence I’ve described above as a way of delaying the wider distribution of the source. But that doesn’t really stack up, since it will be available to Members, and membership is open to all. (The only wrinkle is that the license won’t quite be the EPL, but it will still be royalty-free.) The whole mechanism is just a way of getting the source code into many of the right hands sooner, given the lawyer-hair-raisingly large amounts of work involved in getting the code ready to be opened out under the EPL.

Whether ‘free’ really means free

Basically, yes it does. If there is a catch here it seems a minor one: that period where the code will only be available to Members, who need to pay US$1500 annual Membership dues. And free means we don’t even have any plans to fund the Foundation by putting adverts in the source code.

(A common follow-up question when discussing this internally maybe shows the kind of mindset shift we need to take. If it’s really both open and free, doesn’t this mean rivals could obtain access to the platform for nothing and not give back?

Broadly speaking, yes.
This point chimes with Bruce Perens’ helpful four-point scale of the types of involvement one can have in open source projects, ranging from benefactor at one end to parasite at the other. [I am fortunate enough to have had Bruce describe this in person; the best web record of it I can find is in this slashdot interview here.] A rival acting in this way would be considered a parasite and, by Bruce’s analysis, may actually lose out in the end, since the community will be more eager to help their competitors.

While that sounds morally just, I’m not sure if it’s true. More likely we just live with it: an acceptable cost more than compensated for by the creation of a healthy community.)

Whether ‘neutral’ can really be neutral

I’d rank “control point” as one of the most overused, as well as one of the ugliest, phrases in the mobile industry’s collective vocabulary, so any claim to neutrality needs to be treated with caution. Suffice to say there are a few aspects in the design of the Foundation that give it, I hope, a pretty good chance of genuine independence.

First of all, the seats on the Board simply give each Board Member one vote. This could have come across more clearly in the original comms we did, since it was misheard in a number of places. To be clear, it’s one seat and one vote whether you are the world’s largest phone vendor or a Board Member in a different part of the value-chain altogether. So this looks encouraging.

More significant is a principle that I and many involved are passionate about. This is that the Foundation should keep the decision-making on matters of operational governance (stuff like approving the salaries of management, picking a stationery supplier, and so on) separate from the decision-making regarding the evolution of the software itself. I say “should” because a few details still need to be worked out, but you get the idea. Put simply, you get influence over Board matters by being on the Board and influence over the code by being active on working groups and projects. I propose there is a good test for whether the Foundation is being successful at this: in an ideal world the Board Minutes should be, at least to most people interested in software, a mind-numbingly boring read.

But this is definitely one of the bigger minefields we have to navigate. How do you reconcile the common desire here to create a totally independent entity that makes technical decisions on merit, with the natural human impulse to want something in return for donations? Being alert to this challenge at the very least has to be a start.


Bruce Perens said...


I'll explain my classification of Open Source participants for your audience:

I classify them into Benefactor, Symbiote, User, Parasite.

NASA was a Benefactor when it sponsored many of the early Linux ethernet drivers developed by Donald Becker. I doubt anyone at NASA realized how much involvement with Linux they'd eventually have. They didn't really have an immediate use for Becker's driver work, although now most supercomputers run Linux. So, NASA's role back then was to be a benefactor.

HP, IBM, and Red Hat are Symbiotes they contribute to much Open Source software, and then profit directly from it as well. Most companies that ship products containing Open Source should try to be symbiotes. I gave John some hints on how to do that, but of course Symbian is starting out with a large code contribution.

Users use the Open Source, but don't contribute anything back. Programmers like to have users because they like to have their work appreciated, just as an artist likes to have someone view his paintings. Users also have the potential to become symbiotes. A company that puts Open Source in a product that they sell may see themselves in a "user" role, but usually they end up needing help from the developer community and should become some sort of symbiote.

A Parasite takes value from the community while having an overall negative effect. One way to do this is to violate the licenses (thus potentially demotivating the developers). SCO is an extreme example. Certainly in the case of SCO, the Open Source community and their sympathizers worked very hard to fight that company, and were effective. There is also a manufacturer who used Open Source in a product, and then sued the Open Source developer for patent infringement - look up "JMRI case". And there are some less extreme parasites out there.

I believe it's essential for the Open Source community to watch the companies that participate in it, and to try to "keep them honest" or at least note when they're not helping the community. This has made me unpopular in some circles :-)

I can't guarantee that the community will work against a parasite and selectively help its competition. However, observing the history of Open Source, it's worked before. Examining the profits of various companies in the Linux business, it seems to still be working.

I think a few companies have profited tremendously from showing the community that they "get" Open Source, and not just because of the developer assistance that they get. Often the expert that is asked to help select a product is the Open Source sympathizer within his company, and is motivated to select the company that he thinks is behaving appropriately toward the community. I think this helped Red Hat against Caldera, and probably helps Red Hat against other companies today. As more business people start to understand how Open Source makes business sense, the effect may become more significant outside of technical circles.

Obviously I am delighted that Symbian is putting this much care into the consideration of what sort of citizen of the Open Source community it would like to be, and is using some of my observations to do so.

It also sounds as if you are putting a great deal of care into making sure that Open Source really does make business sense for Nokia and Symbian.

Many Thanks

Bruce Perens

John Forsyth said...


That's much appreciated by me and no doubt others who read it. Infinitely better than my notes from our conversation



Anonymous said...

Hi John,

Good to see a respected strategist join the blogosphere. And great to see such an open and frank approach to discussing the news and events around Symbian from an insider.

FYI - I 've put together an alternative taxonomy of how open source communities are governed in terms of participation model and license type. The Symbian foundation would indeed be filling the gap on weak copyleft/members only contributions.

Good luck with the Symbian foundation - I sincerely hope to see continued progress and innovation, which unfortunately seems to be lacking from other Linux forums..


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