Are you inspired by Open?

by Bryan Kirschner on March 23, 2007 06:02pm

I’ve been running silent for awhile—ironically, because I had too much to blog about.  Sam Ramji and I attended (and sponsored) Olliance Group & DLA Piper’s  2007 Open Source Think Tank earlier this month.  Participants were encouraged to “live blog” (under an honor code)—but I found I was booked 7 AM – Midnight and was fully engaged in what was going on. Since then I’ve been mulling over the things I took away from this really rewarding event.

What got me writing again was reading about the death of John Backus, the “Father of Fortran.” I started circulating a call for Fortran experiences internally , thinking we should put  brief note of tribute up on Port25—then I realized, that this was ‘Web 1.0” thinking (h/t to Hank).   I should put my thoughts out there and let folks share any adds.  My little blurb was:

Fortran shares a hazy set of memories of very random experiences of computing (with PASCAL and COBOL) from when I was a kid - until only a few years ago when I was using Dataplot, a public domain statistical analysis app available from NIST written in Fortran-77.  Dataplot does not claim to be ‘open source’ in so many words, but its authors do promote user enhancement of the source code.  I never actually accomplished anything useful in that at all regard—but I did go so far as to pull down the source and find a Fortran compiler.

I asked myself: given my little story about Fortran, am I inspired by “open?”  On the one hand, I went out of my way to take advantage of the deliberate availability of code.  On the other--in contrast to when I was much younger and noodle around with all kinds of bits—I didn’t actually do anything with it.  What’s important to me?

This led to conclude what struck me most at the Think Tank is the passion of the many start-ups who were there.  They had intense energy inspired by the fact that they see an open source –based business model as offering new opportunity. These are folks “inspired by open” – as an economic opportunity. Conversely (as we found during the Think Tank) this community is largely uninterested in (or actively hostile to) the “what really deserves to be called open source” debate (useful round up from Stephen O’Grady at Redmonk) for understandable reasons: flexibility to do what they need to do to help their businesses succeed is important to them.

I came up with a few personal scenarios:

Curiosity &  Creativity   Historically this was a huge factor in my life-- what was certainly my technical peak was all about getting games to work better on my Commodore64 (6502 Assembly, baby).  Today, Civilization IV—totally moddable using Python and XML and supported with an SDK—is tugging at me.  So is XNA.  The opportunity to do new cool stuff and participate in an organic community is definitely inspirational.  (I used to be able to spend much more time chasing these motivations before I had a house, job, or spouse.  I think the time trade-off explains the brevity of my modern flirtation with Fortran.)

Economic Opportunity & Problem Solving  My first significant indulgence in Microsoft technology actually happened around Visual Basic 5 (--go ahead, insert joke about technical trough here).  I’ve blogged before about being a big fan of Eric Von Hipple’s theories about toolkits and democratizing innovation: Office97 wasn’t a product or set of products—to me, thanks to the “openness” of the object model  it was one big “toolkit” you could make do almost anything a user needed it to do—and I did, for between $35 and $60 an hour.

Status and Recognition  What I enjoy most is making music.  By design (necessity, really –I’m not that good) it is not my source of income. So it has always been about sharing and recognition: all of my music has always been available at no cost, one way or another—the highest praise is someone else performing my songs or positive feedback.   I am a big fan of the creative commons  efforts and (unsurprisingly) the concept of attribution licenses.  This is an area where—like the open source start-ups at the Think Tank, I actually “get inspired” about distribution models and license mechanisms enabling new business models.  (Example:  Today, few artists make any money from record sales—most artist income comes from live performance. Combine a mechanism for distributing freely available music that phoned home as it was (re)distributed so geographic location and demographics register back with the artist; now you have freely peer-to-peer distributed music while independent artists can  pitch (paid) performance venues with a rich, valid database of fans by geography.)

As it turns out this list of top motivations is similar to what Lakhani and Wolf found Why Hackers Do What They Do? Understanding Motivation and Effort in Free/Open Source Software Projects—even though exactly none of these examples fits a textbook definition of a FOSS project.  But that further brings clarity to my experience at the Think Tank: if we look at the question of “inspired by open” as an empirical and human question, not a semantic or theoretical one, the diversity of perspectives and motivations among people suggests diverse communities (or sub-communities) will form along different dimensions of “inspired by open.”  My brief modern flirtation with Fortran helped me think about where I might fit in.  My experience at the Think Tank helped me learn a lot about the “commercial OSS” community and how they’re “inspired by open.”  And that will be the next blog….

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