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Money can't buy open-source love... only code can

Linus Torvalds started with nothing

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Open ... and Shut Money can't buy you happiness, but Meteor, a web-apps startup focused on enterprise app development, seems to think it can buy it an open-source community.

Instead of the standard startup funding announcement, proclaiming that the company will use its funding for product development, marketing and so on, Meteor says it "will use the money to build the open source community around its offerings."

Is that so? Who knew all you needed for an open-source community was $11.2m in venture funding?

This may be a bit harsh. After all, Meteor's board is filled with people who understand that money can't buy a community. David Skok invested in and helped to build JBoss's commercial business. Rod Johnson built up a massive, two-million strong Spring community. Peter Levine also has an open-source pedigree, having run XenSource until its acquisition by Citrix.

But guess what? In exactly zero of those cases did venture money buy a community. The opposite, in fact, happened.

JBoss had tens of thousands of monthly downloads and a broad community well before Skok's Matrix Partners invested in it. It was the community, in fact, that attracted him to JBoss. Ditto for Johnson's SpringSource, which funded itself for years with consulting work while it sowed a dedicated Spring community.

Many open-source startups raised money in the heady days of 2004 through 2009 on the promise of leveraging existing communities or building new communities around their open-source projects. In the latter case, virtually all failed to actually create community, because open-source community really isn't a matter of money.

Linus Torvalds successfully marshalled one of the most impressive open-source communities without raising a penny of venture capital. The same holds true for Drupal, Apache HTTP Server, and every other brand name open-source project. Why?

Because code, not cash, is the currency of open source, something Chris DiBona, Google's director of open source, pointed out recently with reference to Torvalds. And great code, it turns out, really doesn't follow great money.

Maybe the Meteor folks understand this. When they talk about "building open-source community," they say it means "writing software, hiring engineers to help us do that faster and working with developers who are using it." These are all essential elements of developing a vibrant open-source community.

But they're also not dependent on raising venture money, as JBoss and others have shown. In fact, the venture money has always tended to follow community (Acquia with Drupal, JBoss/JBoss, SpringSource with Spring, Red Hat with Linux, Cloudera with Hadoop, 10gen with MongoDB), not lead it.

The Meteor team has suggested that its $11.2m hoard will allow it to focus on development, rather than making money, and that's great. When it does make money, it sounds like it's pulling out Skok's JBoss playbook and focusing on the operations team. After all, Meteor's GitHub activity is currently solid but by no means exceptional compared to its unfunded peers like Ember.js.

Maybe money will change this.

Or, as some suggest, money could corrupt the very things that serve to foster a vibrant open-source community. I personally don't think money will corrupt Meteor's development efforts, but I'm also dubious that it will help. Meteor is in a very crowded space, one in which venture cash is not a big differentiator. If it was, then HTML-5-tools vendor Sencha would have run away with the market long ago, having raised $29m in the past three years.

What differentiates, ironically, is community, and cash simply can't buy that. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 startup Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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