How to Define Open Community

I spent some time at the Open Source Business Conference this week in San Francisco and was struck by the behavior of Microsoft. Impressed, too. They sponsored, they did a keynote, they participated on panels, they talked up the lawyers, and they didn't spark any controversy. There was no talk of cancer and anti-American trends, either. On the contrary, I heard several people say, "Hey, Microsoft is here to learn." Pretty innoxious performance, I'd say.

But here's where it gets insidious. What they did was interesting rhetorically, and Aristotle -- the guy who first quantified rhetoric -- would be proud. They carefully mixed two terms with the intention of redefining both of them. Very smart. Basically, they said: "We are here to learn about open source, but 'community' is not exclusive to open source. We have a community program, too, and it's called shared source." Nice. Expand the term community on which open source is built by associating it with a program not based on open community concepts at all. It's a distinction with a pretty big difference. The term community means something very specific to open source developers, and Microsoft's shared source doesn't fit that definition. If you call them on it, they will gladly admit the distinction, but then they go about their business of redefining and elevating their program to community status until it's part of the open source vernacular. It's just another community model, after all, and we all know there are many different community models.

But at an open source conference? Perfect place, actually. But I think they are on the edge of what is generally accepted as the definition of an open community. Granted, there are passionate debates among developers about various open community models. NetBeans, Jxta, Linux, Apache, Gnome, Mozilla, OpenOffice, etc. All different, but all based on openness and sharing that benefits all involved.

Open source developers are not fooled by this, of course, but as Tim O'Reilly says, OSBC was filled with hundreds of lawyers, who are themselves expert rhetoricians. The conference was also filled with business people who rightly need to build profit-making models around emerging open source development methodologies. I'm not hitting lawyers and business people here. However, as the open source community matures and diversifies, multiple communities are growing and this gives Microsoft an opportunity to redefine terms and change the definition of what an open community means.
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