Economic Motivation of Open Source Software

I came across Dirk Riehle’s excellent article: “The Economic Motivation of Open Source Software: Stakeholder Perspectives” while reading the April issue of Computer on the train this morning.

Thankfully, he’s also put it online:  “The Economic Motivation of Open Source Software: Stakeholder Perspectives

Some interesting conclusions about system integrators:

Large system integrators, or solution providers, stand to gain the most from open source software because they increase profits through direct cost savings and the ability to reach more customers through improved pricing flexibility. Every dollar a system integrator saves on license costs paid to a software firm is a dollar gained that the customer might spend on services.

One conclusion he reaches is that increasing use of Open Source actually increases the potential for employee turnover:

Open source reinforces the trend toward employees becoming “free agents.” Committers who rationally follow their economic interests are likely to be more loyal to the open source project than to their current employer because that’s where their market value lies. That results in a more fluid job market where developers can be expected to move around more freely and more frequently than in the past.

While there’s certainly some truth in the example of how loyalties are shifting – and individuals might stay loyal to a project (or set of projects) across employers, just as IT professionals have always carried skillsets, language preferences, etc. across employers – I don’t think this necessarily means more movement in this direction, for a few reasons:

  1. Developers get involved in multiple projects. Core open source folks might start as contributors and become committers on a single project, but that is more a reflection of their interest in being involved than it is of their interest in that specific project -  if the employment environment (quick Optaros plug here?) is explicitly supportive of that engagement across projects developers might discover new loyalty.
  2. If the employer can uncover enough opportunities for developers to get paid to use their favorite project – for example, keep a developer busy working on Drupal based applications – they might accept the variety of new projects as compensation for the single employer.  The joys of systems integration and consulting work is that if you change client projects frequently enough that it can be like changing jobs without all the paperwork.
  3. How much of the whole “employees becoming ‘free agents'” thing is really voluntary to begin with, at least on the IT side? Maybe a better way to look at this is to say that Open Source increases the level of portability of the knowledge an IT worker gains over time with any single employer, or decreases the barriers to leveraging that existing knowledge in a new firm.

Regardless it’s a very good read for business stakeholders who struggle to understand why anyone wants to open source an in-house project or contribute to an existing open source project.

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