As I look around the FOSS ecosystem I’m beginning to see a trend towards something I call “super communities,” or “communities of communities” – essentially, these super communities are vertical industry-driven open source communities. The core driver for these groups is the recognition by certain industries that a substantial portion of the software they develop is non-differentiated software that absorbs a significant amount of resources that could otherwise be used to innovate, differentiate and compete.
Prime examples of these super communities include:
- Polarsys, an aerospace community launched by Airbus and hosted by the Eclipse Foundation
- New York Stock Exchange-led OpenMama project, hosted by the Linux Foundation
- The GENIVI Alliance, a consortium of automotive OEMs and suppliers building an open source in-vehicle-infotainment platform
- OSEHRA, an open source community focused around electronic health care records management seeded by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
These super communities will be an important step in the ongoing evolution of open source, particularly as a result of open source’s continued success, maturation and proliferation in many highly regulated financial, privacy, and safety-oriented industries. These industries have an inherent level of complexity requiring great economies of scale, shared regulatory and technological overhead, along with the necessity for standards development.
One of the common fictions about open source software projects is that they are not started for financial gain. That may have been true a decade ago, but it is hardly the norm today. These industry super communities, with the exception of OSEHRA, are started almost exclusively for financial gain. By reducing the overhead of non-differentiated software and developing shared industry support models, the participating organizations expect to reduce software maintenance overhead, allowing them to invest more resources in developing innovative solutions that help them compete in their markets.
One very positive aspect of super communities is the way they are increasing the pace of adoption of open source by bringing in populations of otherwise non-participating developers and companies. Driven by key constituents such as the automotive OEMs in the GENIVI Alliance and Airbus in Polarsys, entire supply chains will begin participating in open source.
A potential negative impact might be fragmentation of the open source community if companies in the supply chain restrict their developers to contributing to narrow, vertically-oriented open source solutions. Fragmentation or “balkanization” is a key concern today. Could open source become a victim of its own success?
I doubt it. Open source’s maturity and proliferation is resulting in a dramatic increase in complexity. Just three to four years ago you could go to Sourceforge and expect to find 80% of the viable open source available. Today, by examining Black Duck’s KnowledgeBase we find that the body of open source code (with hundreds of billions of lines of code, and 2,000+ unique open source licenses) is coming from over 5,000 repositories. This ecosystem breadth and depth presents two distinct problems to new users of open source; if you’re a developer outside one of these super communities, you might never find specific vertically integrated and comprehensively tested applications, and if you’re a developer within the super community, you might not be exposed to the rich, diverse world of thousands of enterprise-grade open source solutions available.
Unlike Polarsys, OSEHRA and OpenMama, which were initially launched by a single or very small group of closed source vendors to promote an open source technology and standard, the GENIVI Alliance is a broad industry-specific coalition of automotive OEMs and their supply chain, dedicated to developing an open source automotive in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) platform. It will be interesting to see how the structure and governance of these communities evolve. Will they embrace the open source ethos of collaboration, meritocracy and transparency or will they stay wedded to the hierarchical structures typical of highly-regulated industries? Will we see a harmonic convergence of two distinct models? Or a flexible structure that adheres to industry requirements while allowing competitors and partners to contribute together and share the common denominator software while driving innovation on top?
I think a key factor is the extent to which these communities allow forcing factors in the form of industry outsiders, either individual developers or companies steeped in the open source model, to participate. If we look at GENIVI and OSEHRA, we have entities with little or no open source DNA attempting to change large industries; I think this will be a tall order without the help of external change agents. Although the Linux and Eclipse Foundations come with their own rules and open source license restrictions, they bring a culture and a practice of openness balanced with commercial needs.
There are many lessons available to these new communities. A survey of industry best practices would be a good place for each of the communities to start. If they look at history, they’ll see that until the Eclipse Foundation changed their governance structure to become more inclusive and less dependent upon its founding member, IBM, it did not take off, and that the joint copyright agreement developed by Apache Foundation has become an industry standard. These and many other elements of open source experience can be discovered and implemented within the super communities to give them the best chance of success and the opportunity to positively reshape the open source ecosystem.