One of the main stories that FOSS developers like to tell themselves is that the community is a meritocracy. Status in the community is supposed to be based on what you have recently contributed, either in terms of code or time.
As a motivation and a source of group identity, the idea of meritocracy has powerful appeal. It encourages people to work long hours and gives community members a sense of identification and superiority.
In its purest form—say within a small project whose contributors have been working together for several years—meritocracy sometimes exists.
Similarly, the famous are more likely to influence decision-making than the rank and file, regardless of what they have done recently. People like Mark Shuttleworth or corporations like Google can buy their way to influence. Community projects can find their governing bodies dominated by their corporate sponsors, as has usually been the case with Fedora. Although meritocracy is the ideal, it is almost never the sole practice.
Another trend that undermines meritocratic ideals is the sexism—and, sometimes, outright misogyny—found in some corners of the community. In the last few years, FOSS leaders have denounced this sexism and adapted official policies to discourage some of its worst aspects, such as harassment at conferences. But the problem appears firmly embedded at other levels.
The number of women varies between projects, but 15-20 percent would be considered a relatively high number of women involved in an open source project. In many projects, the number is below 5 percent, even when non-programmers are counted.
Even compared to these low numbers, women are under-represented at conferences, except in those cases where women are actively encouraged to submit proposals—efforts that are inevitably met with accusations of special treatment and quotas, even when no evidence of such things exists.
But the greatest evidence of sexism occurs in everyday circumstances. For example, recently a video interview with Rikki Endsley, USENIX community manager, appeared on Slashdot. Some of the first comments referred to a popular song that included Endsley's first name in the chorus. Others discussed her looks and how she might look more "glamorous."
Similar reactions, many of them far worse, can be found on many FOSS sites or IRC channels whenever a woman appears, especially a stranger. They give the lie to the claims that the community is only interested in contributions, or that the under-participation of women is simply a matter of individual choices.
Just over a decade ago, you could count on Microsoft to call FOSS communistic or un-American, or for leaked revelations of plans to destroy the community.
Much of the community still clings to the memories of those days—after all, nothing brings people together like a powerful and relentless enemy.
But what people fail to appreciate is that Microsoft's response has become more nuanced, and it varies between corporate departments.
No doubt Microsoft's top executives still see FOSS as competition, although the colorful denunciations have ceased.
However, Microsoft has realized that, given the popularity of open source, the company's short-term interests are best served by ensuring that FOSS—especially popular programming languages—works well with its products. That is the basic mission of Microsoft Open Technologies. Recently, Microsoft even released a quote praising the latest release of Samba, which allows management of Microsoft servers from Linux and other Unix-based operating system.
Microsoft is not about to become an open source company any time soon or to make a disinterested donation of cash or code to the community. Still, if you ignore old antagonisms, these days Microsoft's self-centered approach to FOSS is not greatly different from that taken by Google, HP, or any other corporation.
2012 saw a retreat from GNOME 3 and Unity, the latest major graphical interfaces. The retreat was largely a response to the perception that GNOME and Ubuntu were ignoring users' concerns and imposing their own visions of the desktop without consultation.
The short-term effect of this retreat was the reinvention of GNOME 2 in various forms.
As the predecessor of both GNOME 3 and Unity, GNOME 2 was an obvious choice. It is a popular desktop and places few constrictions on users.
All the same, its long-term effect threatens to be a stifling of innovation. Not only is time programming the resurrection of GNOME 2 time away from exploring new possibilities, but it seems a reaction against the whole idea of innovation.
Few, for instance, are willing to admit that GNOME 3 or Unity have any useful features. Instead, both are condemned as wholes. Nor have future developments, such as GNOME's intention to make security and privacy easier, received the attention they deserve.
The result may be that, for the next few years, innovation is likely to be seen a series of incremental changes, with few efforts to enhance general design. Developers, too, may be hesitant to try anything too different in order to avoid rejection of their designs.
I have to applaud the fact that the demands of users have triumphed in the various resurrections of GNOME 2. But the conservatism that seems to accompany it makes me worry that the victory comes at the cost of equally important concerns.