Cultural Method

I’ve been pondering some stuff in preparation for a presentation at Open Source Lisbon this week. In essence, I’m trying to understand Open Source and how it works… not to say I don’t know how Open Source works, we do it well at Coko…I mean to zoom up a level and really understand the theory and not just the mechanics. It is one thing to facilitate a bunch of people to meld into a community, it is quite another to understand why that is important, and what the upsides and downsides are on a meta level. If you take the ideals out and look purely at the mechanics from a bird’s eye view. then what, ultimately, makes Open Source a better endeavor than proprietary software? What is exactly going on?

I have some clues… some threads…but while each thread makes sense when you consider it on its own, when you combine them all it doesn’t exactly make a nice neat little montage. Or if it does, I am currently not at the right zoom level to see it clearly instead I see lots of different threads criss-crossing each other,

Ok…so enough rambling… what is it I’m trying to understand…well, I think when you embark on making software there is this meta category of methods known as the Systems Development Life Cycles (SDLC). Its a broad grouping that describes the path from conception of the idea, through to design, build, implementation, maintenance and back again etc…

Under this broad umbrella are a whole lot of methods. Agile is one which you may have heard of. As is Lean. Then there are things like Joint Application Design (JAD), and Spiral, Xtreme programming, and a whole lot more. Each has its own philosophy and if you know them you can sort of see them like a bookshelf of offerings…you browse it and intentionally choose the one you want. Except these days people don’t choose really, they go with the fashion. Agile and Lean being the most fashionable right now.

The point is, these are explicit, well documented, methods. You can even get trained and certified in many of them.

But… Open Source doesn’t have that. There isn’t a bookshelf of open source software development methods. There are a few books, with a few clues, but these are largely written to explain the mechanics of things and they seldom acknowledge context. I say that because the books I have read like this make a whole lot of assumptions and those assumptions are largely based on the ‘first wave’ of Open Source – the story of the lone programmer starting off and writing some code then finding out it’s a good idea to then build community instead of purely code therefore magnifying the effect. A la Linus Torvalds.

But its very down-on-the-ground stuff. I’m thinking of Producing Open Source by Karl Fogel, and The Art of Community by Jono Bacon. Both very well known texts and I have found both very useful in the past. But they don’t provide a framework for understanding open source. I’ve also read some research articles on the matter that weren’t very good. They tend to also regurgitate first generation myths as if open source is this magic thing and they struggle to understand ‘the magic’. In other words, I miss a ‘unified theory’, a framework, for open source…

I think it is particularly important these days as we are beyond the first generation and yet our imaginations are lagging behind us. There are many more models of open source now than when Eric Raymond described a kind of cultural method which he referred to as ‘the bazaar’ in his cathedral and the bazaar. We now have a multitude of ways to make open source and so the license no longer prescribes a first generational approach, producing open source is much  richer than that these days.

As it happens, Raymond’s text does attempt to provide some kind of coherent theory about why things work although it often mixes ‘the mechanical’ (do this) with an attempt to explain why these processes work. It doesn’t do a bad job, there is some good stuff in there, but it varies in level of description and explanation in a way that is uneven and sometimes unsatisfying. Also, as per above, it only addresses the first generation ‘bazaar’ model. While this model is still common today in open source circles, it needs a more thorough examination and updating to include the last 15 years of other emergent models for open source. There are, for example (and to stretch the metaphors to breaking point), many cathedral models in open source these days that seem to work, and some that look rather like bazaar-cathedral hybrids.

Recently Mozilla attempted to make some sense of these ‘new’ (-ish) models with their recent paper on ‘archetypes’

https://blog.mozilla.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/MZOTS_OS_Archetypes_report_ext_scr.pdf

Here they kind of describe what reads as Systems Development Life Cycle methods…indeed they even refer to them as methods

The report provides a set of open source project archetypes as a common starting point for discussions and decision-making: a conceptual framework that Mozillians can use to talk about the goals and methods appropriate for a given project.

They have even given them names such as ‘Trusted Vendor’ and ‘Bathwater’ and the descriptions of each of these ‘types’ of open source project sound to me like they are trying to make a first stab at a taxonomy of open source cultural practices – so you can choose one, just like a proprietary project would choose, or self identify as, Agile or Lean. Infact, the video on the blog promoting this study pretty much says as much. It’s Mozilla’s attempt at constructing a kind of SDLC  based on project type (which is like choosing a ‘culture’ instead of a method).

However it doesn’t quite work. The paper compacts a whole lot of stuff into several categories and it is so dense that, while it is obvious a lot of thought has gone into it, it is pretty hard to parse. I couldn’t extract much value of what one model meant vs the other, or how I would identify if a project was one or the other. It was just too dense.

Mozilla has effectively written a text that describes a number of different types of bazaars, and also some cathedrals, without actually explaining why they work – except in a few pages that sort of off-handedly comment on some reasons why Open Source works. I’m referring to the section that provides some light assertions as to why Open Source is good to:

  • Improve product quality.
  • Amplify or expand developer base.
  • Increase the size or quality of your organization’s developer hiring pool.
  • Improve internal collaboration within one’s own organization.
  • ..etc…

But this is the important stuff… if these things, and the other items listed in that section are true (I believe they are), they why are they true? Why do they work? Under what conditions do they work and when do they fail?

In other words, I think the Mozilla doc is interesting, but it is cross cutting at the wrong angle. I think a definition of archetypes is probably going to yield as many archetypes as there are open source projects – so choosing one archetype is a hopeful thought. Also the boundaries seem a little arbitrary. While the doc is interesting, I think it is the characteristics listed in the ‘Benefits of Open Source’ section of the Moz doc that are the important things to understand – this is where a framework could be built that would describe the elements that make open source work…..allowing us to understand in our own contexts what things we may be doing well at, what we could improve, what we should avoid, useful tools etc

The sort of thing I’m asking for is a structured piece of knowledge that can take each of the pieces of the puzzle and put them together with an explanation of why they work…not just that they exist and, at times, do work, or are sometimes/often grouped together in certain ways. An explanation of why things work would provide a useful framework for understanding what we are doing so we can improvise, improve our game, and avoid repeating errors that many have made before us.

With this a project could understand why open source works, and then drill down to design the operational mechanics for their context. They could design / choose how to implement an open source framework to meet their needs.

Such texts do exist in other sectors. Some of these actually could contribute to such a model. I think, for example, the Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers is such a text, as is Open Innovations by Henry Chesbrough. These texts, while focused on other sectors, do explain some crucial reasons why open source works. Rogers explains why ‘open source can spread so quickly’ (as referenced in one line in the Moz doc), and Chesbrough provides substantial insights into why innovation can flourish in a healthy open source culture, and how system architecture might play a role in that.

Also the work of John Abele is important to look at and his ideas of collaborative leadership. As well as Eric Raymond’s text…but it all needs to be tied together in a cohesive framework…

This post isn’t meant to be a review of the Moz article. It reflects the enjoyment I have gained from understanding elements of open source by reading comprehensive analysis and explanation of phenomenon like diffusion and open innovation. These texts are compelling and I have learned a lot from them which have helped when developing the model for Coko because at the end of the day, there is no archetype that exactly fits – it is better to construct your own framework, your own theory of open source, to guide how you put things together, than to try and second guess and copy another project from a distance. Its for this reason that I would love to have a unified framework for open source that takes a stab at explaining why all these benefits of open source work so I can decide for myself which ones fit or how they fit with the projects I am involved with.

Open Innovation

Reading Open Innovation – a thesis evolved by Henry Chesbrough in 2003. I have also the follow-up book published in 2006 which is a collaboration with other researchers going through his earlier thesis.

I’m researching this as I’m interested in what current literature exists that explains Open Source and why / how it works which is not from the Open Source domain. Books that emanate from the Open Source domain tend to be religious in nature and it is also true that most attacks against Open Source take it from the religious angle… so having literature that endorses the model which is not open source evangelicalism is very useful.

Previous to this I found a lot of value in The Diffusion of Innovations (originally published in 1962) by Everett Rogers.

Open Innovation and the Diffusion of Innovations separately explain quite a bit about why Open Source works, and I think I’ll post more about this as it becomes clearer in my head.

Chesbrough’s thesis can be summed up in one quote

The Open Innovation paradigm treats R&D as an open system. Open Innovation suggests that valuable ideas can come from inside or outside the company and can go to market from inside or outside the company

Essentially it is the admission that any one company doesn’t have all the smart teams/people/ideas. So how about re-imagining innovation and release it from a so-called ‘vertical innovation’ model, where all the R&D is done inhouse and where IP (Intellectual Property) is jealously guarded, to a open model where innovation essentially comes through collaboration with orgs and individuals outside the company.

From an Open Source point of view this is a ‘duh’ moment… Open Source has long expounded this approach. But…I have never found it well explained…

So it is good to find this argument made elsewhere and in clearer terms…but unfortunately the Chesborough thesis was published in 2003 when Open Source was still very young. Consequently Chesbrough reads Open Source as a idealistic and altruistic movement… he doesn’t really consider open source projects to have a business model and a business model is central to his thesis. Its a pity as Open Source has moved on since then and there are a lot of very successful and interesting examples of Open Source business models. But if you sorta squint while you are reading, and blur out the dated-ness then there is a lot of stuff that could just be quoted verbatim that makes a strong argument for Open Source as seen through the lens of the Open Innovation thesis.

Thats pretty interesting as, combined with the Diffusion of Innovations, these two bodies of work explain the value (and consequently provide a rationale which does not come from the open source sector directly) of open source. Open Innovation explains why open source is a good idea if you are a company whose business requires software to function in its core offerings, and the Diffusion of Innovation theory helps us understand why open source can beat closed source software in the arena of adoption.

The point is, if you can combine the two you have a winner – a model that enables rapid adoption and innovates faster than closed alternatives/competitors. If you can marry successful commercial activity to this you have something very powerful that can potentially wipe out the existing proprietary offerings – which is what we need in the publishing sector. The aim of what we are now doing in Coko, in this post-foundational stage, is to seed the commercial activity around the very healthy core of community technologies we have built.

Anyways… here are some quotes I liked from some of the chapters….Some of the quotes come from this chapter by Joel West and Scott Gallagher http://web.simmons.edu/~weigle/INNOVATION/Patterns%20of%20Open%20Innovation.pdf

Open Innovation is the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively. Open Innovation is a paradigm that assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as they look to advance their technology. Open Innovation processes combine internal and external ideas into architectures and systems. They utilize business models to define the requirements for these architectures and systems. The business model utilizes both external and internal ideas to create value, while defining internal mechanisms to claim some portion of that value. Open Innovation assumes that internal ideas can also be taken to market through external channels, outside the current businesses of the firm, to generate additional value

…useful knowledge is scarce, hard to find, and hazardous to rely upon (a root cause of the NIH syndrome). In Open Innovation, useful knowledge is generally believed to be widely distributed, and of generally high quality

IP becomes a critical element of innovation, since IP flows in and out of the firm on a regular basis, and can facilitate the use of markets to exchange valuable knowledge. IP can sometimes even be given away through publication, or donation.

Recently, open source software has emerged as an important phenomenon that utilizes external knowledge in a network structure (Lerner and Tirole 2002; O’Mahoney 2003; Dedrick and West 2004; von Hippel 2005)

 Most software users would face significant switching costs in using some other software package, due to some combination of retraining user skills and converting data stored in proprietary file formats. As Arthur (1996) observes, software thus has tremendous positive returns to scale, generally allowing only one (or a small number) of winners to emerge.

These winners are tempted to extract rents from their customers by increasing prices and creating additional switching costs to protect those rents (Shapiro and Varian 1999). From these production economics, commercial software firms seek to build complete systems to meet a broad range of needs, in hopes of forestalling potential competitors and protecting high gross profit margins

In other cases, a system architecture will consist of various components. Some mature (or highly competitive) components may be highly commoditized, while other pieces are more rapidly changing or otherwise difficult to imitate and thus offer opportunities for capturing economic value. Two open source examples are the IBM’s WebSphere and Apple’s Safari browser…

…Customers access the WebSphere e-commerce software using standard web browsers, so IBM originally developed a proprietary httpd (web page) server. IBM later abandoned its server for the Apache httpd server, recognizing that it would be wasting resources trying to catch up to the better quality and larger market share enjoyed by Apache (West 2003). Today, IBM engineers are involved in the ongoing Apache innovation, both for the httpd server and also related projects hosted by the Apache Software Foundation (Apache.org website)

Whooohoooooooo!

Hindawi launches its Journal system today built on Coko PubSweet tech!!!

This week, Hindawi is releasing a new peer review system that will debut on Bioinorganic Chemistry and Applications. The new platform is open source, developed as part of Hindawi’s collaboration with the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation (Coko). This release is a first step towards a network of open publishing infrastructure that Hindawi, Coko, and collaborating organisations will develop and share with the research community.

https://about.hindawi.com/blog/hindawi-launches-new-open-source-peer-review-system/

This is major news for the Coko Community.

2 models for Open Source

Once upon a time there was pretty much one dominant way for open source projects to produce software. It was called the ‘itch to scratch’ model, as proposed by Eric Raymond in his book ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’.

I consider this model to be a cultural-method for producing software, in that not many formally learn this process, rather it propagates by participation and lessons learned are handed down from one person to the other either by witnessing events or discussing the pros and cons of how to make open source software. There are very few that book learn the process.

It was such a pervasive methodology that many have referred to it as ‘the open source way‘.

However, I think it is true to say that these days Open Source software (in the formal sense) has been produced in as many ways as there are to produce software. With that in mind, there do appear to be two dominant models now that have proven out over time…the first is the ‘Itch to scratch’ model where one or more developers (usually exclusively devs) have a problem and they work towards solving it with openly licensed code. The second I am not sure has a name, (it may do and I don’t know it) which I’ll call for now ‘enlightened self interest’. This second category is generally groups (any type of organisation) that work together to solve a shared need.

Just pinning this idea here for now…

XSweet 1.0!

We have 1.0 of the docx -> HTML transformation tool XSweet out today! It also has a new site:

http://xsweet.coko.foundation/

XSweet is a finely crafted tool. It takes docx files, those horrible mangy MS Word files, and translates them into clean, lovely, HTML. XSweet is open source, modular, and very nicely done.

A huge tip of the hat to Wendell Piez (XML guru), and to Alex Theg. As geeky as it sounds, I loved watching these two chat about the issues they encountered making this software. The attention to detail was really unbelievable. Amazing work. XSweet is a finely crafted tool.

More info on Coko https://coko.foundation/announcing-xsweet-1-0/

If you want to do a deep dive into why I think this is important, I wrote this some time ago – https://www.adamhyde.net/typescript-redistributing-labor/

OLPC

img_3558

So, you may never have heard of OLPC, but it was quite a thing. OLPC = One Laptop per Child. A project initiated by MIT. Its mission was to change the world – essentially to educate millions of kids that did not have much in the way of educational resources. The basic idea was to make really really cheap laptops and then get them to kids that needed them. The Laptop was pretty innovative at the time as there was no such thing as a ‘small factor’ laptop back then. You just had big, expensive, laptops. OLPC tried to get the price down by innovating in form factor and the attendant technologies like screens…

olpc-x0-unboxed

It was a pretty cool thing.

Anyways… there was an interesting article that a friend passed to me about it. I just landed in NZ, so I’m pretty knackered and can’t quite write what I want to write about this now. But here is the link:

https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/16/17233946/olpcs-100-laptop-education-where-is-it-now

I’m writing about it here as I was pretty close to the project. In fact, I facilitated all the documentation and worked closely with Walter Bender and the crew. We (FLOSS Manuals) did a few Book Sprints to create the docs and as it happens I found this old, old vid online from that time:

I found the OLPC project deeply flawed. It was a movement without proper resourcing and an untethered ambitious aim. But I liked Walter and many of the people involved. It was interesting to watch this whole thing unpack slowly infront of me. Anyways… will read the article more thoroughly when I’m more present and make some more comments from my own experience of the project.

continued…. actually, I slurped up a coffee and read the article more closely. It’s pretty accurate. I realised things were topsy with the OLPC when I discovered the reason why we were doing docs (apart from them not having any in the first place) was because the laptops were selling at (something like) $180 a unit, but costing $186 (0r something) per unit in support costs alone. They were making a loss on each machine purely on support costs. It wasn’t a surprise to me as many people needed a manual just to work out how to open it up…

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But I have to say, Walter Bender was the real deal. Super smart and humble as pie. He had his heart and vision in the right place, and if he had been supported the OLPC project would not have lived and died as a hardware project. His vision was much greater and worthy but, as the article discussed, didn’t get the traction over the sexy hardware sell.

Anyway… some of the manuals we made are still online 🙂

http://booki.flossmanuals.net/xo/

It was even translated to Farsi and a heap of other languages that are only to be found now in the Internet Archive (eg Greek, Arabic and others). The docs were also available in book form, electronic book, and on the laptops themselves.

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