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OpenSource Thought Leader and CollabNet Founder Brian Behlendorf (Part 9)

Posted on Monday, Apr 14th 2008

SM: What are some of the more interesting projects going on in the OpenSource space?

BB: Recently I have been spending a lot of time with non-profits which are using OpenSource software in very creative ways. One example is the Grameen Foundation which runs an OpenSource project developing software to run a microfinance bank. They put it out there and they have 3,000 microfinance institutions in the world as potential users. It meets a certain set of conditions around sovereignty, flexibility, and ease of use that commercial software not only can’t do but would not do if they could.

There is another project out there called Sahana which was developed by some Sri Lankan developers after the Aisan Tsunami in 2004 which is designed to be ERP software for disaster relief. There was no pre-existing software at the time. Now there is Sahana and a few other OpenSource projects in this space.

There are interesting ways that OpenSource is broadening beyond just software. Wikipedia is OpenSource applied to knowledge. Now we are seeing domain specific wikis like WikiTravel. The concept of communities getting together and collectively maintaining something whether it is code or content is having a massive impact.

SM: The OpenCourseware project is a very big variation of that.

BB: The academic textbook world is in for a major shock in the next few years. They are so used to a lucrative and un-inundated business that once the educators realize they can get together and create better content, with greater freedom, it will be interesting.

I just heard a presentation by Henry Jenkins who is a professor of comparative media at MIT. He was talking about how students in the classroom today are realizing that collectively using online collaborative tools they are smarter than the teachers standing in front of them. They can sit in class in real time and correct the teacher. That is really interesting and I think we are seeing something that is deeper than just a next wave in software. This is an inversion of a lot of power structures in society.

SM: What about sustainability of the model? At the end of the day a lot of resources are required to sustain the OpenSource requirements.

BB: That has been a focus of mine since Apache. Did this start out as an altruistic but unsustainable movement? I certainly hope it has no! I have spent a lot of time and effort to create the Apache Software Foundation in order to make it viable. In fact that is one reason why I left that community to make sure it could survive without me – that the model was self-sustainable.

At Mozilla there is a very different answer. Mozilla required full time developers working on the browser because it is much harder to do something on the client side. Additionally it has to develop very fast to keep up with Microsoft. Mozilla needed full time developers which costs money. We were lucky enough to stumble upon a way to build the product in such a way that we could have relationships with search engine vendors where passing them traffic meant financial reward. A lot of people search through that, and it has been enough to pay for a staff which is now approaching 90.
Those are two extremes.

The vast majority of OpenSource activity happens in this nexus of big company interest and smaller companies or startups. Finding a common enough need that outside forces are willing to invest and build on top of the strategic opportunity that the investment will make is what so far appears to be very sustainable. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is still at work. There are OpenSource projects that die because they do not have that support. It is Darwinian. It is just like an ecosystem where there are different niches out there.

SM: This has been a great story, congratulations on the success!

BB: Thank you. It has been a fun journey so far.

This segment is part 9 in the series : OpenSource Thought Leader and CollabNet Founder Brian Behlendorf
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