[NYT] Open Source Software Arouses Researchers' Curiosity

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From: Adam Rifkin -4K (adam@XeNT.ics.uci.edu)
Date: Thu Apr 20 2000 - 16:21:04 PDT

I liked this line:
> Open-source programmers are an interesting bunch of volunteers because
> they are among the most sought-after employees in the economy, and
> because their volunteer work has produced lucrative commercial spinoffs.

Sing it, sister!


[Jeff Bone would be proud, I found this article thanks to
www.clickfeed.com ... :]

> Open Source Software Arouses Researchers' Curiosity
> April 20, 2000
> WHEN technology stocks took their sharp tumble last week, many companies
> appeared to lose one of their most important assets -- the ability to
> lure talented employees with options. To attract and hold the best, you
> have to offer the chance to strike it rich.
> Or do you? What are we to think when the best of the best -- the elite
> programmers that industry wisdom deems 100 times more productive than
> the typical competent coder -- donate their precious time to develop
> software anyone can use without charge? That is the puzzle the
> open-source movement, most famous for the Linux operating system,
> presents to economists.
> Unlike most commercial software, which comes as incomprehensible "ones"
> and "zeroes," open-source programs always include the source code,
> written in a programming language like C++. Any programmer can look at
> the code and change it to fix bugs or add features. Programmers
> contribute such patches to the user community by sending them to a
> central authority, recognized as the project leader. That person (or
> small group) decides which changes are good enough to become part of the
> recognized version of the software that is available to everyone. For
> instance, Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, screens patches for the
> core portions of that operating system.
> There are thousands of open-source projects, of varying popularity and
> complexity. Aside from Linux, some of the most prominent include the
> PERL language, Apache server software, the Emacs text editor and the
> Sendmail e-mail routing program. Companies like Red Hat make money not
> from the code itself, which customers could get free, but from the
> products or services bundled with it.
> The great advantage of open-source development is that the process taps
> thousands of independent minds, making it much easier to find and repair
> software bugs. "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow," writes
> Eric S. Raymond, a programmer and movement observer, in "The Cathedral
> and the Bazaar." The essay is available at
> http://www.tuxedo.org/esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar.html
> Open-source programming thus emulates the marketplace -- Mr. Raymond's
> bazaar -- as well as the scientific peer-review process. Improvements
> emerge incrementally, from an open-ended, decentralized process rather
> than a central design. The software becomes more useful and reliable
> over time.
> While its development looks like a marketplace, open-source software
> itself is a classic public good. You can use it without contributing to
> its maintenance and without paying a cent to all those programmers who
> created and improved it.
> Hence the economic puzzle. As Josh Lerner of the Harvard Business School
> and Jean Tirole of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ask in a
> recent paper: "Why should thousands of top-notch programmers contribute
> freely to the provision of a public good?" Titled "The Simple Economics
> of Open Source," the paper is available at
> http://www.people.hbs.edu/jlerner/
> Professor Lerner says he is skeptical of the argument that says "this
> new technology is so fundamentally different that all the old rules are
> off." Incentives, the economists believe, are bound to matter. But if
> that is the case, the question has ramifications beyond software, since
> many public goods depend on tapping the time and talents of volunteers.
> Of course, open-source programmers often reap some direct advantages
> from their improvements. But solving their own problems has spillover
> benefits for other people, just as fixing up a rundown building for your
> own business makes the neighborhood nicer for everyone.
> And a lot of people work on open-source projects they do not need for
> their jobs. One reason is that it is fun and interesting, as much
> recreation as work. That is true of many other public-good endeavors,
> from planting trees to running charity balls. They are not all selfless
> drudgery. Where virtue must be entirely its own reward, volunteers will
> be hard to find.
> But fun cannot explain everything. After all, many open-source hackers
> are already paid to program, and they do not do that for free. Mr.
> Raymond argues that open-source developers work for status among other
> programmers. If you do good work, you become a big shot. Your name is
> forever associated with the code you have contributed, and because the
> code is open, everyone can see just what you have accomplished.
> Hackerdom is a ruthless meritocracy, dedicated to winnowing out bad code
> and spreading good. A lesson for other voluntary endeavors is that
> praising people just for showing up will not attract the best talent. To
> be valuable, reputation and recognition have to signal something
> significant.
> Along these lines, Professors Lerner and Tirole add a pecuniary motive
> -- one that traditional charities might call "networking." Contributing
> to open-source projects can enhance a programmer's career prospects.
> Especially for someone living and working in an out-of-the-way place,
> open-source work can attract the attention of potential employers or
> financial backers. The most striking example is Mr. Torvalds, who was a
> graduate student in Finland when he released Linux and is now a highly
> paid executive at a Silicon Valley start-up.
> Professors Lerner and Tirole's signaling story assumes that the
> programmer already has a portfolio of skills and that open-source
> development simply offers a means to display them. But volunteering to
> work on difficult problems is also a way of honing new skills --
> building your human capital, as an economist would put it -- and the
> open-source community offers feedback that encourages learning. This,
> too, is a form of career enhancement.
> Open-source programmers are an interesting bunch of volunteers because
> they are among the most sought-after employees in the economy, and
> because their volunteer work has produced lucrative commercial spinoffs.
> But software is hardly the first public good provided through private
> efforts. While it may sound crass to consider them, every voluntary
> endeavor needs incentives for excellence. The public good often depends
> on respecting private gains.
> This column appears here every Thursday. Virginia Postrel is the editor
> at large of Reason magazine and the author of ``The Future and Its
> Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and
> Progress.'' Her email address is VPostrel@aol.com. Four economic
> analysts - Ms. Postrel, Jeff Madrick, Alan B. Krueger and J. Bradford
> DeLong - rotate as contributors.


Put your hands down my pants and I'll bet you feel nuts. -- Bloodhound Gang, "the Bad Touch"

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