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What motivates Open Source community? (Read 8881 times)
Rad
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What motivates Open Source community?
Dec 6th, 2008 at 9:30pm
 
I was just reading about an Open Source WordProcessing prgm called AbiWord:

http://filehippo.com/download_abiword/

In particular:

Quote:
AbiWord is part of a larger project known as AbiSource, which was started by the SourceGear Corporation. The goal of the project was the development of a cross-platform, Open Source office suite beginning with AbiWord, the project's word processor.

AbiWord has been created by a worldwide group of volunteers and currently supports many languages and operating systems.

Are these guys getting PAID for their work? (Doesn't seem like it.)

If not, what motivates them? .. especially when products such as MS Word seem to dominate. Do you personally know any ppl who write open source software. The whole concept is interesting. What reward motivates them?
 
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MrMagoo
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #1 - Dec 7th, 2008 at 11:54am
 
I don't know about AbiWord, but many open source coders are paid.  OpenOffice comes to mind.  Sun Micro maintains OpenOffice and employs several developers who work full-time on it.  Linus Torvalds is employed full-time at The Linux Foundation, which is funded largely by IBM.

The majority of open source developers don't get paid.  There are as many reasons they work on open source as there are open source developers.  I think a lot of it is wanting to improve what is out there.  Just because a certain software title is dominant doesn't mean it is perfect, and you get to work on the features you want when you volunteer your time.

For me, the few snippets of shell scripts and C code I have released as open source were about giving back.  I've borrowed heavily from code other people have written for both personal and professional use, so when I have a snippet of code someone can use, I enjoy helping people out.  If I can get decent code for what I want to do from the community, it saves me the time of writing it from scratch.  If I can make some improvements and offer it back to the community, everyone wins.
 
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #2 - Dec 7th, 2008 at 6:41pm
 
I didn't know you write code. I thought you were just a Linux guru. (No offense meant by "just")

It's kinda hard to imagine somebody dedicating many hours of their time freely (without compe$ation) .. especially in this crappy economic climate.

I would like to contribute to an O/S project .. or something like that. I think that's what I do with my guides (sharing what I know) .. altho now they DO pay-back .. since I've coded in Google's ads .. so I'm no longer a purist.

All the help I have received from folks online (who are amazingly helpful) is what prompted me to "give back".

There is something about contributing to "the community" that makes one feel good about what they are doing.

In the registration agreement for this forum, I encourage ppl to "help someone else in return" .. if they find help here .. to keep the karma rolling .. cuz that's how it works.

After I'm done with this latest legal fiasco, I need to learn some coding mojo.
 
 
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Nigel Bree
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #3 - Dec 7th, 2008 at 7:16pm
 
Rad wrote on Dec 6th, 2008 at 9:30pm:
Do you personally know any ppl who write open source software.

Yes, but bear in mind that there's a world of difference between "open source", without the capital letters, "Open Source" with the capital letters  (which derives on a very odd conception of source code as being all-important, split into effectively three sub-movements - one which is essentially the same kind of hobbyist/academic research movement that has existed from the mainframe era through to today, one explicitly anti-corporate one largely driven by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation who claim Open Source as their particular thing, and a third more recent part which is essentially arising from the existence of open source platforms as a public good, and building products and services on them - this latter third being something in which corporates can and do participate in many ways, with an eye to the political and PR benefits of the FSF-type movements).

There's one other important dynamic, which is that publishing open source can be used in much the same way as game modding, in that it is a useful way for inexperienced people to learn the field and gain a portfolio along with it, and thus participation functions as an entree to commercial work. This is increasingly important as what university courses teach undergraduates has and is continuing to become further and further separated from the skillset that commercial development involves.

The thing is that the meaning of source code itself has changed over the years (first the mainframe era, then quite different dynamics in the minicomputer era, then different dynamics in the microcomputer era). There's very little difference between how things were in the days of the minicomputer era with the DECUS groups (who created large libraries of utilities and source code that were shared in public, with sponsorship and encouragement from DEC and shared lots of source code - See, for instance, http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/accession/102652252 for an early example) and the kind of things that go on in universities today. The sharing is largely the same, and split between folks writing something because they needed it (and sharing it because it's useful to others), and someone writing stuff just to learn about it and publishing it just as a "hey, look what I did" kind of thing.

The paradox being, of course, that from the beginning right through to the 90's when Open Source became a political movement, the source code really didn't actually matter so much. If you wanted to learn how an operating system like UNIX or a compiler for, say, C worked, you just wrote your own one from scratch anyway; you simply didn't need source for an existing one because a) the known concepts were well explicated in non-source form in books or published research, and b) programs tend to be full of all kinds of cruft that grow over time which means that it's easier to write something new than work with a large existing code base and c) you learned more by inventing your own solutions to the problems anyway.

Rad wrote on Dec 6th, 2008 at 9:30pm:
What reward motivates them?

For the ones I know, who are highly expert, mostly just learning for its own sake (be it for personal improvement or be it for pure research purposes to advance the state of the art), which is really the same as it always has been. Beyond a certain level of expertise, it doesn't matter so much whether you're in a commercial or non-commercial context, you're someone who is motivated by mastery of the art itself.

The folks for whom source code is political and for whom "Open Source" is some kind of existential expression of "freedom" aren't folks I have much to do with, largely because people who hold such views aren't expert developers and so I wouldn't ever have much cause to interact with them.
 
 
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Nigel Bree
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #4 - Dec 7th, 2008 at 7:49pm
 
Just as an aside, this reminds me of two articles I was read yesterday in The Economist which speak to the level of passion some people will bring to trying to master something: Desperately seeking Mahler. And in a nice juxtaposition, the article in a sidebar just after it was this: Blowhard.

Computer software, like mathematics, differs from music in the way that the results of the art can be operationally employed by others - and that is the level at which those obsessed with the politics of source code pretty much concern themselves; mere utility, which has little to do with the aesthetics of the thing itself.

A serious obsession with the art - music, mathematics, programming, or what have you - is something entirely else, and it's generally not a particularly rational thing.
 
 
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MrMagoo
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #5 - Dec 7th, 2008 at 9:06pm
 
Quote:
Computer software, like mathematics, differs from music in the way that the results of the art can be operationally employed by others - and that is the level at which those obsessed with the politics of source code pretty much concern themselves; mere utility, which has little to do with the aesthetics of the thing itself.

Some people seem to see the utility itself as beautiful.  The more useful, the more aesthetic.  The WordPress guys' motto is "Code is poetry":
http://wordpress.org/about/

Rad.Test wrote on Dec 7th, 2008 at 6:41pm:
I didn't know you write code. I thought you were just a Linux guru. (No offense meant by "just")

Like I said, mostly scripts and snippets I've added to existing stuff or tweaked what is there.  I'm no expert, but I took a few college classes and I'm working on learning more.  Being able to automate the more mindless parts of my job doesn't just save on sanity - there's no way I could keep up with 3000 servers without all kinds of automated tools.  Stock tools never do exactly what you want, and its incredibly satisfying to be able to "fix" what is out there and make it do what I want.

I'm not sure the masters out there would consider what I do programing, but I had to start somewhere.
 
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Nigel Bree
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #6 - Dec 7th, 2008 at 9:06pm
 
Incidentally, here's a great bit of history which may relate a little to the question. In the late 1970's, a couple of folks wrote a computer chess program which I played as a youth, Sargon II. The original version, SARGON, was written in Z80 assembly language and was published as a book in 1978; the next version, Sargon II, was even immortalized in film - it's the chess program MacReady (Kurt Russell) is playing in the awesome John Carpenter film The Thing, on a (somewhat disguised) Apple II owned by one of the effects guys.

Here's a transcript of a 2005 interview with Dan and Kathleen Spracklen on how they ended up creating it. It's totally worth a read. Go, read it!

I remember Sargon II in particular particularly fondly, since after having the thing whip me time after time, I decided that I simply had to figure out how it worked. This would have been in about 1981, so I would have been 14, and since I only had weekend access to the school's Apple ][ I simply dumped an assembly language list of the entire program to a big stack of paper and set about with a pencil to reverse-engineer the program flow and work it all out. Which, it turns out, was surprisingly doable. I don't recall how long I took, probably about a month lugging the stack of printout between classes, until I knew was all the code was doing and had mapped out the data structures and how it evaluated board positions and such like.

I had no idea until I saw the above article that a book version of the program existed, not that it matters - the learning experience from the reverse-engineering process itself was the lasting value. A fun challenge for one day (in a future when I don't have a to-do queue several years long) would be to do the same thing for this version of Visicalc (which was the very first commercial spreadsheet) since the PC version is small and you can still list it out easily on a modern machine without needing an Apple ][ emulator.
 
 
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Nigel Bree
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #7 - Dec 7th, 2008 at 9:10pm
 
MrMagoo wrote on Dec 7th, 2008 at 9:06pm:
The more useful, the more aesthetic.

Actually, if you bother to read the text at the link you posted, you'll see that the aesthetics are of the code itself, and not about the utility. Honestly, it means the opposite of what you claim, and expresses the same idea as I was talking about.

Edit to add: for those who aren't familiar with it, "elegance" as referred to in the Wordpress page above and indeed by developers everywhere has a very specific meaning, one that is very closely related to the concept of elegance in mathematics. It is in essence a particular kind of minimalism; the mathematician George Polya (author of the famous book on heuristics in mathematics, How to Solve it) expresses it particularly well, and that exact same appreciation of the mathematical system aesthetics is what is called elegance in digital fields as well.

Note that there is (in the above Google Books link) a mention of elegance in engineering with respect to utility, but it is the same minimalist aesthetic, not any kind of crude maximalism as you suggest.
 
 
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #8 - Dec 7th, 2008 at 9:25pm
 
Quote:
Actually, if you bother to read the text at the link you posted, you'll see that the aesthetics are of the code itself, and not about the utility.

I did read the link.  I've been a fan of the project for some time.

From the link:
Quote:
WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system built on PHP and MySQL and licensed under the GPL.

You and I take a very different interpretation of the context of that page.  And I'm ok with that, but let's please keep the conversation civil.
 
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Nigel Bree
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #9 - Dec 8th, 2008 at 12:21am
 
For those who haven't read Polya, by the way, I do highly recommend it: here's the Amazon page and I'll go with the 5-star reviewers.

There are a lot of other words that, like "elegance" (the explanation of which I started editing in above immediately as I posted, so it crossed the followup), have a universally understood meaning in software which is different from the common english usage: a nice potted explanation of a few more is Feasibility.

The ones on "trivial" and "non-trivial" are perhaps the most interesting, and relate to the links from the Economist I posted above about the obsession with mastery, and what it really means to know how to solve a problem.

The level of understanding, of knowing, is like that mathematicians have with respect to proofs (proofs and programs being basically isomorphic, as I've mentioned elsewhere several times). For a problem to be trivial is not just that you've seen a solution so you know one exists, or that you've read of a solution, it's a level where you can be absolutely certain that you can just start, and however long it takes (up to decades later) fill in every step along the way.

There's no real way to gain that understanding except by doing. And so that's why you'll find that basically all the top software developers, the ones obsessed with mastery, have often written things that already exist in some form - be it implement a programming language, or an operating system, or a database, or whatever else. Since there's just no other way to gain (or to demonstrate to oneself) that level of mastery and insight except by the grind of starting with a blank sheet and doing it all by hand with just a pencil (or the metaphorical equivalent), well, there will be a lot of re-writing a lot of stuff going on for that purpose alone. And where 20 or 30 years ago when we did this kind of thing it'd be tossed in a drawer and forgotten about, these days there's no obstacle to sharing it (at least if you're just starting out).
 
 
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Rad
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #10 - Dec 8th, 2008 at 9:55pm
 
Quote:
a useful way for inexperienced people to learn the field and gain a portfolio along with it, and thus participation functions as an entree to commercial work

this is something i had considered .. sort of OJT (on the job training) .. which is valuable

Quote:
what university courses teach undergraduates has and is continuing to become further and further separated from the skillset that commercial development involves

you seem to be saying universities are not good trng grounds for entre into the corp. world. i thot the job of a good univ was to query local corps and find out what skill-sets they seek. (No?)

Quote:
split between folks writing something because they needed it

it would seem, at this point in time, that pretty much anything anybody could ever want (for personal use) has already been written (multiple times by multiple ppl). and the only things needed are large projects sought by large corps, no? Am I inaccurate in my thinking?

Do "code respositories" exist online .. where ppl might look for something they need. Even in the world of info & guides .. if you need to learn how to do something, chances are somebody has already written and posted a handy "how-to".
 
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #11 - Dec 8th, 2008 at 10:25pm
 
Rad wrote on Dec 8th, 2008 at 9:55pm:
and the only things needed are large projects sought by large corps, no?

If everything else were standing still, but it's not. There's always new hardware, and new standards for interoperability evolving, and constant pressure for all software from users to add more and more features - which for most software, is what sows the seeds of its eventual destruction.

Since the design of any program is usually around doing some small particular thing, as more and more things are piled into it - and more importantly, more and more different concepts introduced - eventually the program's internal model of How Things Fit Together starts to break down. The result tends to be that getting anything done gets harder and harder and harder, meaning that development slows down greatly and the level of breaking bugs introduced by changes go up as more stuff needs to change.

[ This isn't necessarily so, but it's an inevitable consequence of the use of static type systems in most mainstream Algol-derived programming languages. Systems written in Lisp and Smalltalk, which didn't use static type systems accomodate change much better, and so have no trouble living for decades. But you have to get people a) smart enough and b) willing to learn Lisp and Smalltalk, which is a tall order. ]

At which point, one of a couple of things happen, either:
a) the rate of change gets too slow, and a rewrite happens (or has already happened in the form of a competing program, of course) or else things tend to grind to a halt and the product/project/company goes into hibernation (and is then typically replaced not by something identical, but by something that works entirely differently, say a collaborative web app instead of a local one), or
b) if it was written by smart enough people, Greenspun's 10th Law kicks in, and the program absorbs that complexity by becoming a platform, with a built-in programming language suited to itself (which helps it manage the complexity for another cycle of evolution).

Rad wrote on Dec 8th, 2008 at 9:55pm:
Do "code respositories" exist online ..

Yes, there are literally dozens but they are mostly pretty terrible to find things in; they are more for serving the needs of developers at a project level by hosting source code control and bug-tracking systems, but finding the projects themselves is more difficult.

The most venerable is SourceForge, but good luck with searching it and finding anything useful. One (that I particularly like) is Google's, at http://code.google.com/ - which naturally enough has reasonable search and a very clean design, being Google. Even Microsoft have one, at CodePlex http://www.codeplex.com/ - plenty others exist too.

For smaller things like libraries or snippets of code to build into applications, there are language-specific repositories of stuff as well, since they aren't usually big enough to be "projects" given that many of the above repositories are too cumbersome to use for small things (Google Code being an exception). CPAN for Perl is the most notable of the language-specific repositories, although that's more a function of how the Perl user community works.
 
 
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #12 - Dec 10th, 2008 at 9:07am
 
Although, I'm not up to writing 'code' in today's environment, I can somewhat relate to those who do.

The last program I wrote was a Business Support Program that I wrote for the Commodore 64, in Commodore Basic.
It incorporated Inventory, Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable.

I thought at the time that it was quite "Elegant".  Wink Smiley Smiley

Even if the offering is just a helpful batch file, it's the code itself that's the Elegant part, not necessarily the Utility of it.
Although, if it's not utilitarian in nature, the code can be pretty worthless, regardless of how elegant it may be.  Roll Eyes

So what's the bottom line..... I dunno!
Firefox is open source and I find it both elegant and useful.
So to open source coders everywhere, all I can say is, "Thank You!".

Happy Holidays Everyone!
Shadow  Cool

 
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Nigel Bree
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #13 - Dec 13th, 2008 at 3:17am
 
Rad wrote on Dec 8th, 2008 at 9:55pm:
you seem to be saying universities are not good trng grounds for entre into the corp. world.

Oops, I did mean to follow up on this. I didn't quite mean that; after all, I'm not really fit for the corporate world myself.

Which I guess deserves explanation first; in the corporate world, what managerial types want pretty universally is some kind of simple, cheap, interchangeable labor unit. For all the rhetoric about people - and it is true that individuals can matter - management in general want to manage, and that means people they can manage, who just do what they are asked to do by people for whom software may as well be magic. [ This isn't any slight on my employer, since the two direct managers above me have enough development experience of their own to know better. ]

So, there's no negativity at universities for not delivering what employers want, since what emplyors want software development to be is about the same kind of thing as assembly-line work, which ("enterprise" Java development aside) it isn't at all.

Of course, they aren't delivering out students who are excellent at software development either, because universities in general are a) trying to balance too much between wanting to create researchers and function as vocational training, b) subject to groupthink and fashion just as everyone else is, and c) limited by the capabilities of their student intake - as I've noted before, there is across all OECD countries a substantial general fall in the ability of students enrolling in engineering courses in the last decade.

------

Incidentally, a couple of more general links: this book review entitled "Geniuside" is about artistic endeavor, but it relates to the software field as well. The question about writing is whether taking a job to pay the bills is a second best, and merely compromises one's art ( the reviewer doesn't want creative folk to make such compromises; I have never found working that kind of compromise).

For the second link, I was listening to on NZ National Radio this morning to noted author Malcolm Gladwell on the subject of his latest book, high ability and expertise. Well worth a listen while the link lasts; if you miss the chance to listen, at least read this.

I definitely wouldn't take the figure of 10,000 hours too literally (especially since time spent merely repeating things mechanically is not useful), but the more general thesis that practice and devotion almost equal ability is one I wouldn't argue against. It's merely something where it is hard to argue cause versus effect. Most notable is that as I've mentioned here before, since achievement yields pleasure (via the dopamine circuit, which is referred to in a later interview in the same radio show), there is a potent feedback loop which rewards and selects for ability.
 
 
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Re: What motivates Open Source community?
Reply #14 - Dec 19th, 2008 at 8:49am
 
Aren't we doing something similar to those who write FREE programs?

We share our expertise with the world, thru these on-line forums and normally get paid Nothing. Undecided

I personally work almost 20 different forums and freely share batch files, vbscripts and .reg scripts that I've written to make a PC run better, cleaner, faster.

I can only assume that my motivation to spend so much time at my computer helping others is the same as what motivates others to write FREEWARE and Open Source programs. Smiley

So I'll get back to work, and close by saying.....

Merry Christmas to all !

The Shadow  Cool

 
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