Strategy, Tactics, and why companies are free to not contribute.

Yesterday Julie Bort wrote in the NetworkWorld site an interesting post called “Cisco doesn’t contribute nearly enough to open source”, where she contends that “”[despite its] .. proclaims it responsible for a half percent of the contributions to the Linux kernel (0.5%). In reality, Cisco has been a near non-entity as an open source contributor”. Of course the author is right in its claims – the amount of contributed code to the Linux kernel is substantial but very “vertical”, and specific to the needs of Cisco as a Linux adopter.

Which is a perfectly sensible thing to do.

The problem of “contribution” comes up and again in many discussions on open source and business adoption of OSS; it is, in fact, a source of major debate why participation is low, and what can be done to improve it. It is my opinion that there are some barriers to OSS contribution – namely, internal IPR policies, lack of understanding of how participation can be helpful and not just a gift to competitors, and more. On the other hand, two points should be made to complement this view: the first is that some companies contribute in ways that are difficult to measure, and the second is that sometimes companies have no economic reasons to do so.

Let’s start with the first point, that is a little peeve of me. Companies can provide source code; some do, and that’s a beautiful thing. However, there are many, many alternative ways of collaborating. Aaron Seigo, of KDE fame, in one presentation outlined the many activities that are part of the possible KDE contributions:

  • Artwork
  • Documentation
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Marketing
  • Quality Assurance
  • Software Development
  • Translation

In fact, I would say that some aspects like Artwork, Marketing and Quality Assurance may even be more important than pure coding – the problem is measuring such contributions. While the technical work underpinning source code analysis is quite well researched (among others, in our FLOSSMETRICS project) there is NO research on how to measure non-code contributions. And such contributions may be hugely important; one of my favorite example is the release, from Red Hat, of the Liberation fonts – a set of fonts with metrics compatible with the most widely used Microsoft fonts, like Arial. That alone helped substantially in improving the quality and correctness of document editing and visualization on Linux. How to measure that? Ubuntu has substantially contributed in terms of dissemination, in creating a base for many other distributions (including our own Everydesk). How to assess the value of that?

The second aspect is more complex, and is related to the strategy and tactics that a company uses to fulfill its own goals. Let’s take into account what a normal company do: first of all, survive (that is, revenues+reserves>expenses). Not all companies do have such a goal (a company designed to fulfill a task and then end its activities does have the survival goal with a deadline) but most do. This means that a company performs an internal or external activity if it does provide, now or in the future, a probable increase in revenues or reserves, or decreases expenses. Moral or ethical goals can be easily modeled in this schema using a “ethical asset”, that is a measure of how good we are in a specific target environment; for example, ecological contributions and so on.

So, let’s think about our typical company using OSS for a product. Let’s imagine that the company is doing a tactical adoption, that is it does not have a long term strategy that is based on Open Source. If the cost of contributing something is lower than the cost of doing everything from scratch, then the  company will contribute back (or at least, the probability of that action is higher). In absence of a strategy based on open source, there is no need to go further.

For example, in the blog post the open sourcing of IOS is mentioned; the question is: why? What economic goal this open sourcing brings? If the company decides to adopt a long term strategy based on resource sharing (with the idea of receiving substantial contributions from external entities – like Linux, WebKit, Apache, and so on) then this may make sense; but it implies a substantial change in company strategy. Such large changes are not easy to do and perform well; Sun tried (and partly failed), and most of the “famous” examples are only partially adopting an open-based strategy (IBM, Oracle, Google).

To recap: 1) we must evaluate and appreciate all kind of contributions – not only code. 2) We can expect large scale contributions only from companies that bet their strategy on OSS – Red Hat is among my favorite examples of that. We cannot expect, realistically, for companies that are using Open Source in a tactical way to contribute back in the same way.

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  1. #1 by Bryce Harrington - September 22nd, 2010 at 00:51

    The cost/benefit consideration of contributing is a good point.

    The “cost” of contributing (in terms of procedural paperwork) can be non-trivial for some of the more established projects.

  2. #2 by dca - September 22nd, 2010 at 10:20

    Perhaps, it’s just an issue of when talking about huge (large on a ridiculous scale) corporations like Cisco & Oracle, we (FOSS community) just expected more. That’s it, not the “why can’t you be more like Red Hat” because they have different goals or core functions/services.

  3. #3 by Anonymous Coward - September 22nd, 2010 at 14:42

    Some companies forbid employees from contributing any code to open source projects due to (perceived) patent risk. I.e. if you give away something it turns out you have a patent on then you’ve demonstrated that its value is $0, so you can’t enforce the patent.

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