Archive for February 2011

Being Open

I was recently privileged to be invited to come and give a talk at AOL, on the work we do with Socorro, how Mozilla works, and what it means to be open.

The audience for the talk was a new group at AOL called the Technology Leadership Group. It consists of exceptional technical people - engineers and operational staff - from all parts of the organization, who have come together to form a group of thought leaders.

One of the first items on their agenda is, as Erynn Petersen, who looks after Developer and Open Source Evangelism, puts it: “how we scale, how we use data in new and interesting ways, and what it means to treat all of our projects as open source projects.” My task was partly to talk about how open source communities work, what the challenges are, and how AOL might go about becoming more open.

It’s amazing how things come full circle.

I think every person in the audience was a user of Open Source, and many of them were already Open Source contributors on a wide range of projects. Some had been around since the days when Netscape was acquired by AOL.

I’ll include the (limited) slides here, but the best part of the session in my opinion was the Q&A. We discussed some really interesting questions, and I’ll feature some of those here. (I want to note that I am paraphrasing/summarizing the questions as I remember them, and am not quoting any individual.)

Q: Some of our software and services are subscription-based. If we give that code away, we lose our competitive advantage - no one will pay for it anymore.

A: There are a bunch of viable business models that revolve around making money out of open source. The Mozilla model is fairly unusual in the space. The most common models are:

  • Selling support, training, or a built and bundled version of the software. This model is used by Red Hat, Canonical, Cloudera, and many others.
  • Dual licensing models. One version of the software is available under an open source license and another version is available with a commercial license for embedding. This is (or has been) the MySQL model.
  • Selling a hosted version of Open Source software as a service. This model is used by Github (git) and Automattic (Wordpress), among others.
  • It’s also perfectly valid to make some of your software open and leave some proprietary. This is the model used by 37signals - they work on Ruby on Rails and sell SaaS such as Backpack and Basecamp.

Another point is that at Mozilla, our openness *is* our competitive advantage. Our users know that we have no secret agenda: we’re not in it for the money, but we’re also not in it to mine or exploit their personal data. We exist to care for the Open Web. There has been a lot of talk lately about this, best summarized by this statement, which you’ll see in blog posts and tweets from Mozillians:

Firefox answers to no-one but you.

Q: How do we get started? There’s a lot of code - how do we get past the cultural barriers of sharing it?

A: It’s easier to start open than to become open after the fact. However, it can be done - if it couldn’t be done Mozilla wouldn’t exist. Our organization was born from the opening of Netscape. A good number of people in the room were at AOL during the Netscape era, too, which must give them a sense of deja vu. I revisited jwz’s blog post about leaving the Mozilla project, back in those days after I drafted this post, and I recommend reading it as it talks about a lot of the issues.

My answer is that there’s a lot to think about here:

  • What code are we going to make open source? Not everything has to be open source, and it doesn’t have to happen all at once. I suggest starting up a site and repository that projects can graduate to as they become ready for sharing. Here at Mozilla basically everything we work
    on is open source as a matter of principle (”open by default”), but someof it is more likely to be reused than other parts. Tools and libraries are a great starting point.
  • How will that code be licensed? This is partly a philosophical question and partly a legal question. Legal will need to examine the licensing and ownership status of existing code. You might want a contributors’ agreement for people to sign too. Licenses vary and the answer to this question is also dependent on the business model you want to use.
  • How will we share things other than the code? This includes bug reports, documentation, and so on.
  • How will the project be governed? If I want to submit a patch, how do I do that? Who decides if, when, and how that patch will be applied? There are various models for this ranging from the benevolent dictator model to the committee voting model.

I would advise starting with a single project and going from there.

Q: How will we build a community and encourage contributions?
A: This is a great question. We’re actually trying to answer this question on Socorro right now. Here’s what we are doing:

  • Set up paths of communication for the community: mailing lists, newsgroups, discussion forums
  • Make sure you have developer documentation as well as end user documentation
  • If the project is hard to install, consider providing a VM with everything already installed. (We plan to do this both for development and for users who have a small amount of data.)
  • Choose some bugs and mark them as “good first bug” in your bug tracking system.
  • Make the patch submission process transparent and documented.

There was a lot more discussion. I really enjoyed talking to such a smart and engaging group, and I wish AOL the very best in their open source initiative.