Community: hype or enabler?

Matt Asay initiated a good debate about the role of the community in open source software development. He based his reflections on a survey by Packt Publishing reporting that “70% of software developers said that they have donated time, money, or both to open source projects” and asking if open source software “really needs individual contributions from developers to survive?”

Matt’s answer is no: “’Community' is perhaps the most overhyped word in software (…) In open source, we tend to think of community as a group of people that actively contribute code to a project. But this myth was debunked years ago. Most people don't contribute any software, any bug fixes, any blog mentions, or any anything to open-source projects, including those from which they derive considerable value. They just don't.” He added a few words from Linus Torvalds himself: “Most users are free-loaders. There are relatively very few people who actually give back in source code or in bug reports, so anybody who argues against free-loading in open source is a moron.”

Matt concluded his post by differentiating between “community of users” and “community” alone: “Community is mostly made up of onlookers.

Carlo Daffara from Conecta did not agree: “I still believe that by leaving the underlying idea of “community” undefined Matt does collate together many different collaboration patterns, that should really not be placed together.”
In his opinion: “Most software do not have a real community outside of the developers (and eventually some users) of a single company; it takes a significant effort to create an external support pyramid (core contributors, marginal contributors, lead users) that adds value. If that happens, like in Linux, or the ObjectWeb consortium the external contributions can be of significant value; we observed even in very specialized projects a minimum of 20% of project value from external contributors.” He refers to contributions such as OpenCascade & OpenOffice, and adds that “the way the post is presented seems to imply that only commercial contributions are really of value.”

So where is the truth?
Sure, some salespeople and communications specialists act like street vendors, shilling their products. In their mind, community is hype, as is the Next Big Thing (virtualization, neural networks, hologram-based authentication, etc.) But the truth is that these vendors borrow the development principles of proprietary software which is to say that they have their own development staff and upgrade paths serving the interest of a commercial vendor.

But a company like Talend really relies on its community to improve its products and be responsive to customer needs. In a recent post on Talend Blog, Yves gave some examples of how the community is involved in the development process itself:

  • Talend Babili - version 3.1 is the first version to contain localized language packs in 9 languages (in addition to English), enabling a native language user interface to be available for our users across the world. Talend Babili is a pure community project, and has seen tremendous involvement for a number of community members.
  • Our beta testing process, and especially our bug squashing contest which has seen numerous bug reporters get involved in the final testing stages of version 3.1. The top bug reporters, located in Germany, USA and France, reported up to 15 issues!

With more than four million lifetime downloads and 900,000 core product downloads, Talend Open Studio has a tremendous community of users, but with thousands of topics on our forums, bugtrackers, Babili, and Wiki, we also have a huge community of contributors. While we depend on our own development staff to develop most of our binaries and components, we strongly rely on our community to enhance our products. Open source, as I repeat tirelessly on this blog, is above all about user satisfaction - collaboratively developing products which REALLY satisfy user needs.

We’ve stopped counting how many of our components were contributed by users - there are too many of them. For example, in France the Pays des Vals de Saintonge (PVS), recently decided to finance the Edigéo and Magic connectors to transform their data, which would then be given back to the community under a GPL license so that all municipalities could benefit from them. Eurofins enhanced a SQL Server connector commenting “Thanks to our expertise in terms of databases, we improved the MS Server connectors and we have shared these improvements with the community.” And Habitat 76 financed the development of a connector for the Alfresco management tool, which it opted to return to the community for integration in future versions of Talend Open Studio and Talend Integration Suite.

These are only few examples of the involvement of our community.

So to conclude, I’m delighted to say - no, the community is NOT hype!



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