Thursday Oct 30, 2008

Making Money with Free Software

When I saw today's Slashdot story with a similar name, I assumed it'd be about some business model for monetizing opensource software. That's a fairly dry subject, but nonetheless one that interests me. So I read on.

But much to my surprise, the money being made was this:

Picture of New Commemorative Coin: 'The Architecture Fiver'

...and when they said it was being made with free software, they really meant it. The Dutch Ministry of Finance held a contest to design a new five Euro coin using the theme: "Netherlands and Architecture." And the winning entry came from Stani Michiels, who developed it using nothing but opensource software.

For the whole story, see Stani's blog. I particularly like the bits about how he did the design and visualization. On the front of the coin, for example, he took the names of famous Dutch architects, sized and positioned them according to how many web pages mention them, and finally varied the lettering's line widths to produce the image of Queen Beatrix. Pretty cool stuff.

Thursday Sep 25, 2008

Want to Feel Like Royalty? Join an Open Source Project.

A Crown

Every open source project talks about how much they want your contributions. But do they really mean it? If you submit a patch, will they puke all over your work because they would have written it differently? Or because you indented your code with three spaces instead of four? Or just because you don't work for the right company?

Maybe. But not in most projects. I can guarantee that it won't happen in the area where I work (Project SocialSite). And I honestly think the same is true for most of Sun's other open source projects.

Why? Because these things shouldn't be Sun's open source projects. They should be open source projects in which Sun happens to be a very active participant. I think that most people at Sun understand and agree with that sentiment. So we'll bend over backwards to support outside contributions. Again, using SocialSite as an example, we would love to see any of the following coming from people who don't work for Sun:

  • Bug and RFE Reports
    • You just need a java.net ID to submit a bug or RFE in our Issue Tracker
  • Code Submissions
  • Wiki Updates
    • Anyone with a java.net ID can create and edit content on the SocialSite Wiki
  • Outreach
    • Mention us in a blog or a discussion forum--anywhere our project might be of interest

And when I say we'll bend over backwards to support you, I mean it. If your contribution could benefit from some changes, we'll work with you to make them. If you need more information before you can contribute, just ask and we'll provide it. Or if your goal is to become a commiter, we'll help you through the process.

One thing we can't do is suspend the rules. But the rules are simple and they serve a purpose. To become a committer, you first need to sign a Sun Contributor Agreement (SCA) and then submit a patch or two. That's pretty standard stuff in the world of open source. The SCA ensures that Sun has the legal rights to protect the project and its source code in court if necessary. And the patches don't have to be huge. They just need to be a positive change and demonstrate that you have a basic understanding of the project's code.

So please, put me to the test. Find something in SocialSite that you think could be better, and submit a patch. Or edit the Wiki. Or open a bug. And if we don't give you the support you need, let me know. It'll be my personal mission to find out why we failed and make sure it never happens again.

Thursday Feb 08, 2007

Open Source and Employee Passion: Avoiding "Employer Lock-in"

I agree with Kathy Sierra's argument that employers need to worry less about finding employees with a passion for their company and more about finding employees with a passion about their work. Having a primary passion for your work means you'll always look out for the interests of it and its users. In the long run, that will be in the best interest of your employer (since they commissioned your work in the first place). The opposite doesn't always hold true--having a passion for your employer above your field and profession can sometimes result in choices which are detrimental to your work (and thus, in the long run, detrimental to your employer).

Things get more interesting when an employer provides the freedom to take your work with you. That's what open source licensing does. If you're at Microsoft, I hope your primary passion is for general fields such as operating systems or GUIs. Because you certainly won't be able to take any of your specific project work with you some day when you walk out the door. But at a company like Sun, that's not the case. You don't have to be afraid to put your full passion into our application server project. If you leave some day, you'll still have full access to the work that you and others have put into your project, plus the option to continue contributing (or fork it and start your own competing effort, if you think the original has gone far off course). The same is true in areas such as operating systems, programming languages, and even hardware. Instead of "passion for your work" having to remain at an abstract level, it can be at the level of specific projects and efforts. That's a good thing.

I realize that Kathy had a bad experience working at Sun (and she even infers that Sun is an example of "what not to do" in one of the comments following her post). I don't know any further specifics of her situation, but I do think it's safe to say that Sun has evolved in this area (and continues to do so). As a recent European Commission study shows, Sun is the world's leading open source contributor. That's a big change. And in this context, I think it also means a big change in how the company thinks of its employees' work.

When talking of allegiances, some people say "love it or leave it." Perhaps a better saying would be "love it because you can leave it." That's a good measure of freedom and values in any setting. And in the setting of tech employers, I think it's a measure that Sun is leading.

Thursday Jan 11, 2007

What Can We Learn From NetBSD's Problems?

"The NetBSD Project has stagnated to the point of irrelevance." These words came from project co-founder Charles M. Hannum in an August email. It's sad to see such talk directed at one of the pioneering open source projects. I hope that the issues Hannum raises can be fixed and NetBSD returned to a healthier state.

At the same time, I wonder if other projects can learn from these observations and avoid running into similar problems. Hannum ends his note with a list of eight steps which he believes must be taken for NetBSD to regain its way. Some are fairly specific to their project, but others are not. In particular, I think the first three are worth highlighting:

  1. There must be a strong leadership, and it is not the current one. The leadership must honestly want NetBSD to be a premier, world class system with leading edge features. The leadership must set aggressive goals, and actively recruit people to make them happen.
  2. There must be no more "locking" of projects. Just because one person is supposedly working on a problem, that doesn't mean you shouldn't. If there ideas are dumb, or even just suboptimal, do it better! If there is no progress, hop on it. Don't wait for someone else.
  3. The project must become an \*actual\* meritocracy, not what I call a "volumetocracy". Right now, the people who exert the most influence are often the people who produce the least useful product. Indeed, they are often people who produce little more than fluff (e.g. changing line-ending whitespace!), and often break things.

There is clearly some NetBSD-specific background behind these observations, but I think the core ideas are applicable to other projects. There must be strong leadership (preferably down to an individual level, as noted elsewhere in his note). There must not be any detrimental "locking" of projects (which he believes can arise from having too much of a "corporate mentality"). And there must be promotion of a true meritocracy.

Those sound to me like important lessons for any open source effort. And given that Sun is establishing itself as the largest open source contributor in the world, I'd say they're also important lessons for us as a company.

Wednesday Dec 13, 2006

A Special Message From Sun's CEO

Here at Sun, one way our CEO stands out against his counterparts is by blogging. Every week, thousands of people all over the world read his latest thoughts in his own words--no handlers, no filters, and certainly no ghost writers.

That means it's a rather unusual honor when someone else is chosen as an intermediary for one of his key messages. Today I have just such an honor, passing along some thoughts about Sun's recent moves to open source Java. So without further ado: a very special message from the CEO.

Note: modern Flash Player required, and you may need to retry the link a time or two--the service provider sometimes has trouble handling the volume surrounding such an important topic.

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