Business vs. FOSS: Six Pressure Points

Free and open source software co-exists happily with business, yet key conflicts remain.
Posted November 17, 2008

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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The question of whether business can co-exist with free and open source software (FOSS) was settled long ago. It can, and not only successful companies like Red Hat but also the willingness of venture capitalists to fund FOSS business models proves the case.

However, the very term "FOSS business" reminds us that it is not the norm. Instead, FOSS business remains a hybrid or an alliance of interests whose values and interests can conflict as often as they overlap. To function effectively in FOSS business, you need to be aware of these potential areas of conflict so that you can avoid or minimize them in both hiring and interactions with the FOSS community.

Based on my experience and observations, here are six areas where business and FOSS sometimes rub each other the wrong way:

1) Hierarchy vs. Meritocracy

Business in general and high-tech in particular, has a much flatter structure today than it had a couple of decades ago. All the same, between titles and the power to make decisions, few people in an office environment have any doubt where they stand in relation to other people in the same company.

But in FOSS projects, the ideal is a meritocracy, in which people are judged by the work they have done, particularly recently. Nor is the practice much different from the theory. While most projects have a titular head, the style of leadership tends to be hands-on, with those in authority first among equals. Look at the Linux kernel mailing list, and you will see that even a celebrity like Linus Torvalds is argued and questioned, even in his areas of expertise.

These different operating styles mean that both business executives and FOSS need to modify their expectations to work together. Executives cannot expect automatic respect, while those from FOSS backgrounds need to recognize that, in a business context, their normal interaction may come across to some people as rude and insulting.

2) Profits vs. Excellence or Freedom

Being successful in business means turning a profit, yearly and quarter after quarter. By contrast, FOSS is about software quality (if you are from the open source camp) or software freedom (if you are from the free software side).

Like having an environmental plan or a strategy for charity, supporting excellence or freedom may be desirable parts of any business plan. However, focusing on excellence can mean that you miss a shipping schedule, and focusing on freedom may sometimes seem irrelevant compared to meeting a deadline. The business-oriented need to remember that emphasizing profitability at the expense of everything else may reinforce the mistrust of commerce that runs through the FOSS community, while those with a FOSS perspective should be aware that their values can undermine the whole point of a company if insisted upon to the exclusion of business goals.

3) Gatekeepers vs. Openness

Both internally and externally, the passing of information in companies tends to be controlled by gatekeepers. Usually executives and marketers, gatekeepers control what information is passed along, and who receives it.

This model is the exact opposite of the tradition of openness in FOSS projects. In the Debian project, for instance, not only the source code but policy debate and even decisions tend to be discussed publicly -- an idea that is likely to strike the average MBA as contrary to common sense.

Of course, the social web has introduced more openness into many businesses, while in practice FOSS projects like Debian have always had private politicking behind the public discussions. However, these facts don't mean that debates over the ideals won't arise in FOSS-based businesses. Managers are apt to be surprised how often company information is discussed when developers deal with the community, while developers may feel that uptight managers are preventing them from interacting with the community properly. Guidelines may help defuse such clashes, but too strict or obvious a policy may also be poor public relations for a company trying to be a good citizen of the community.

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Tags: open source, Linux, software, Red Hat, FOSS

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