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The open source lifeblood

Companies come and licenses go, but the thing that really makes FOSS are participants - those who build the code and make changes. Contributors are the lifeblood of Linux FOSS, and the 2000s saw Linux and FOSS attract legions of new contributors as businesses recognized the potential of the software and the development methodology. New contributors meant new features.

The challenge of the next 10 years is in continuing to not just attract more contributors - but to attract one very specific type of contributor: the end-user corporation outside the existing gene pool of IT that dominate.

Many of the contributions to FOSS come from those already in the tech industry. That's either because they have a natural inclination or interest in working on coding projects or have of a sense of self-interest with individuals or companies working on code to projects and products that help them down the line.

But end-user corporations outside the tech sector developed a reputation during the last decade for using open-source and not returning their changes to the community. In some cases, the terms and conditions of employee's contracts mean what ever work they do during their nine to five on the company clock belongs to the company and cannot - from a legal perspective - be simply donated to a community or given away. In other cases, employers would not release changes for fear of betraying competitive advantage.

Red Hat's chief executive Jim Whitehurst - an ex-Delta Airlines man - in 2008 put the subject of needing to get more users from outside the tech community on the map, lambasting the level of participation in open source. He slammed a lack of user-based projects, saying hundreds of billions of dollars are wasted each year as enterprises build their own software.

Bring out your contributors

Michael Tiemann, Red Hat's vice president of open-source affairs and president of the OSI, told us fresh contributors are needed to help bring improvements to code on a small level that can make open-source as a whole better. Tiemann believes there should be greater synchronization between different projects if open-source is to really make a change now that it's hit the mainstream.

"Open source dramatically expands the number of ways people can participate in this incremental improvement cycle, and when open-source is doing its synchronization job these smaller efforts come back to be a major one," Tiemann said.

He also believes those corporations that use open source and open-source methodologies will benefit from this process, because changes in code become synchronized and because software no longer becomes a big-bang release that can go wrong during rollout.

Backing Whitehurst, Tiemann claimed in a whiter paper here (PDF) that $1 trillion is wasted each year in failed IT projects as software runs late, goes over budget, or fails to deliver on the features promised. Last year, the Standish Group reported a quarter of all IT projects are considered a failure because they are canceled or are never used. Forty four per cent are late, run over budget, or are delivered without the required features. Thirty two per cent are considered successful.

Open-source helps, Tiemann says, because those changes on a small scale mean smaller upgrades and less "big" IT rollouts once there's been a major application upgrade.

Tiemann says it's in the end users' own self interest to join in because participation improves FOSS and makes the experience of using FOSS better, because users making the changes they want in the software. "Nothing succeeds like success. We have seen a growing number of companies trying, failing, trying again, failing a little more, and ultimately, the success makes it all worth it," Tiemann said.

"There is an extraordinary potential to be unlashed when people discover how to properly interact with open source, which is not consume, consume, consume, or buy, buy, buy - but by this behavioral ability to be able to inhale, process, exhale - to make participation rewarding."

So participation is good, but how do you convince those consuming to give back or circumvent the corporate legalese that prevents donations to FOSS during the next 10 years?

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Next page: The cultural shift

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