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Open Source: Why Do They Do It?

One of the first questions a dyed-in-the-wool businessperson will ask about open source is why in the world people would volunteer to do something that they could be paid to do. Numerous explanations have been put forward, including the following:

  • Need for the product--in order to create, customize, or improve a product or feature. This reason dominates the decision-making process for all early participation in both open-source and gated-source projects, but, as time goes on, continued participation is based on other things for open-source projects whereas a need for the software continues to prevail as motivation for gated-source projects.
  • Enjoyment, fun, and desire to create and improve--because they enjoy it and find creating or improving software creative and interesting. This is the primary reason people continue in open-source projects for the long term. Such people tend to scan the email archives, bug reports, and feature-request lists to find things that catch their eye, things that are challenging or represent an area they want to learn about.
  • Reputation and status--in order to build or maintain reputation or status within the community.
  • Affiliation--in order to socialize or spend time with like-minded individuals.
  • Identity--in order to reinforce or build a desired self-image.
  • Values and ideology--to promote specific ideals, such as the free software philosophy.
  • Training, learning, reputation outside the community, and career concerns--to improve their skills, with the belief that such improvement will lead to a better job or promotion.
  • Fairness--to pay off the debt they owe from having used the software or received help from the community. For some, the bargain takes a long time to pay off.
  • Hope of making things better--to find or create better solutions than those already in place.
  • Feedback--to get comments on the work and how well they are doing as a programmer or designer. As with other creative activities, this is a driving urge. Here is what open-source expert Sonali Shah says,

... creative programmers want to associate with one another: only their peers are able to truly appreciate their art. Part of this is that programmers want to earn respect by showing others their talents. But it's also important that people want to share the beauty of what they have found. This sharing is another act that helps build community and friendship.1

1. Community-Based Innovation & Product Development: Findings from Open Source Software and Consumer Sporting Goods , p. 33.

Innovation Happens Elsewhere
Ron Goldman & Richard P. Gabriel
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