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Fresh blood - the new fight for open source

Send in the committers

open source 75

Meet "Zorro, master of the night". Zorro is a Java developer for a major US bank that makes widespread use of open source software. Zorro is keen to participate in open source projects, too, except for one thing - his employer won't let him.

"For me, to contribute back to open source, I'd have to become 'Zorro, master of the night' - you have to go underground," our programmer said during last week's MuleCon in San Francisco, under condition of, yes - you guessed it - anonymity. "You have to understand the risk that we take."

We're so deep here, Zorro isn't even his real alias - he just plucked it out of the air - but his case is typical. Like many developers working for The Man, his time and any intellectual property he creates during work hours belong to the company.

And that's creating a serious challenge when it comes to open source projects, as they rely on the contributions of volunteers who are paid for, and effectively owned, by employers.

Forget potential litigation from another SCO. Get over the shadow of Microsoft. The real challenge facing open source is how to bring in fresh contributors and code contributions to sustain projects and meet users' needs. Without fresh blood, projects progress relatively slowly and are likely to stumble towards meeting the requirements of the end user, the consumer of IT.

Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat chief executive, last month joined a growing chorus voicing frustration with lack of corporate participation in open source projects. This means that IT projects do not get the direct input they need from a requirements perspective. For all Red Hat's success, Whitehurst knows that unless more users participate, Red Hat faces a significant challenge filling out its technology stack, delivering software users want and - ultimately - growing its business.

Drumming up corporate involvement also explains the motivation behind the creation of companies like the Collaborative Software Initiative. This is working to bring projects to open communities that might actually be useful, as opposed to peddling some vendor-filtered dream of what it wants you to want.

The challenge is real. Open source has done well in operating systems and middleware. Fedora and MySQL are regarded as successes. It's the fledgling projects that face the challenges as the industry tries to define what's next in open source middleware and applications after things like JBoss?

Open source projects are being particularly challenged because many large organizations - such as Zorro's employer - suck in huge quantities of open source code, but are not returning changes, which could have been useful to the community at large.

Fortune 500 companies who can't give the code back are the biggest challenge facing MuleSource, an open source service-oriented architecture (SOA) start-up from San Francisco, says chief executive Dave Rosenberg.

MuleSource customers include large banks, big financial institutions and major retailers and their reluctance to commit, may stem legal challenges - the companies own the IP - or the feeling among the developers that their bosses know their Gmail address, and that they will get in trouble if they flout company rules.

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