Home > Open source, Ubuntu > The 6 dimensions of Open Source

The 6 dimensions of Open Source

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Why do people choose to participate in Open Source ? It’s always a mix of various reasons, so let’s try to explore and classify them.


The first dimension is technical. People like open source because looking directly in the code gives them the ability to understand the behavior of their software. No documentation can match that level of precision. They also like the ability to fix it themselves when it’s broken, rather than relying on usually-broken support contracts. Any non-Fortune500 that tried to report a bug to Microsoft and get it fixed will probably get my point. Sometimes, they like the ability to shape and influence the future of the software, when that software uses open design mechanisms (like Ubuntu with its free and open-to-anyone Development Summits). Finally, they may be convinced, like I am, that open source software development methods result in better code quality.


Next to the technical dimension, we have a political dimension, more precisely a techno-political dimension. People like Free software as a way to preserve end-user freedom, privacy and control over technology. Some powerful companies will use every trick in the book to reduce your rights and increase their revenue, so its more and more important that we are aware of those issues and fight back. Working on free and open source software is a way to contribute to that effort.


Very close to the political dimension, we are now seeing philosophic interest in open source software. The 20th century saw the creation of a consumer class with a new divide between those who produce and those who consume. This dissociated usage of technology is a self-destroying model, and contributing models (or participative production models) are considered to be the solution to fix our societies for the future. Be a producer and a consumer at the same time and be associated with technology rather than alienated by it. Open source is an early and highly successful manifestation of that.


Back on the ground, there are strong and rational economic reasons for companies to opt to fund open source development. From most virtuous to less, we first find companies using the technology internally rather than selling it : sharing development and maintenance costs among several users of that same technology makes great sense, and makes very virtuous open source communities. Next you find companies selling services around open source software: being the main sponsor of a project gives you a unique position to leverage your know-how around software that is freely available. Next you find open core approaches, from companies making a business selling proprietary add-ons to those using open source as crippleware. Finally, at the bottom, you’ll find companies using “open source” or “community” as a venture capitalist honeypot. They don’t believe in it, they resist implementing what it takes to do it, but they like the money that pretending to do open source will bring them.


A very important dimension of open source is the social dimension. Many people join open source projects to belong to a cool community that allows you to prove yourself, gain mastery and climb the ladder of a meritocracy. If your community doesn’t encourage and reward those that are in this social dimension, you’ll miss a huge chunk of potential contributors. Another social aspect is that doing work in the open (and in all transparency) is also great publicity for your skills and to get employment. The main reason I got hired by Canonical was due to my visible work on Gentoo’s Security team, much more than to the rest of my professional experience. Finally, the sheer ego-flattering sensation you get by knowing that millions of people are using your work is definitely a powerful drive.


The last dimension is ethical: the idea of directly contributing to the sum of the world’s common knowledge is appealing. Working on open source software, you just make the world a better place. For example, open source helps third-world and developing countries to reduce their external debt, by encouraging the creation of local service companies rather than encouraging to buy licenses to US companies. That sense of purpose is what drives a lot of people (including me) to work on open source.

Did I miss anything ? What drives you to participate on open source ? Please let me know, by leaving a comment !

Categories: Open source, Ubuntu
  1. September 8, 2010 at 18:07

    You pretty much captured all my reasons right there! Great post!

  2. September 8, 2010 at 19:22

    I don’t think that Open Source cares about ethics or politics or philosophy. Those are the things Free Software is about. It’s best when Open Source and Free Software coincide, but that’s not always the case. Many projects nowadays downplay those aspects.
    It’s important to know the differences and choose where to stand.

  3. September 9, 2010 at 04:50

    Every one of those reasons is exactly why I moved to FOSS. There’s no other reasons that I can think of, except for ‘fun!’

  4. September 9, 2010 at 08:19

    Awesome post!

  5. foo
    September 9, 2010 at 08:23

    You missed one: trolling

    Sometimes (valid) bug reports are great vehicles for trolling.

  6. September 9, 2010 at 13:11

    Excellent post – comes from a clear mind and is well-written. Thank you for sharing!

  7. September 9, 2010 at 17:45

    You missed one big reason: compiz! LoL

    Just kiding! 😉

  8. September 10, 2010 at 10:33

    I get new knowledge after read your open source articel, Thanks

  9. Mil
    September 10, 2010 at 14:15

    The ethical is the single most important dimension of ‘Going Open Source’.

    It goes way beyond practical purposes…its a way of life.

  10. E5Rebel
    September 10, 2010 at 15:08

    Nice post, Simon Phipps, ex Sun open source guru has an interesting take on open source communities and the type of people that particpitate over at ComputerworldUK.com. It adds to the discussion

    Open Source Community Types

  11. Golodh
    September 11, 2010 at 11:13

    I miss a dimension that strikes me as more important than all the others: Convenience.

    Convenience as in: “How easy is it to solve our problem using package XYZ?”

    Much software is selected (both by hobbyists and firms) who have precisely zero concern for political, philosophical, social, and ethical issues. They usually have little regard for technical considerations, some concern for economic considerations, and a fairly strong wish not to expose themselves to legal action by downloading “warez”. And the amount of research they do ranges from 10 min to an hour of Googling. After that people want to download a software package and start using it.

    Incidentally, that’s why there are so many “try before you buy” offers.

    And this is where I see Open Source’s big opportunity.

    As soon as some functionality is instantly accessible by merely installing some RPM or Debian package, the download and installation are painless (automatic download from a repository, installation through a package manager), and (this is crucial !) a palatable GUI that lets someone who’s never heard of the package and doesn’t want to spend any time with the manual use it instantly, you have a very strong contender.

    If I had to rank the dimensions along which FOSS is chosen I’d rank them as follows:
    — crucial —
    (1) Convenience

    — significant —
    (2) Economic
    (3) Technical
    (4) Political

    — insignificant —
    (5) Ethical
    (6) Philosophical
    (7) Social

  12. Steffen
    September 11, 2010 at 11:34

    I’d want to explicitly mention Self-Education (you have it as ‘understanding’) and the education of others (may go under social and technical, or political).

  13. September 13, 2010 at 14:35

    My thoughts on why people might participate in free software: http://mdzlog.alcor.net/2010/05/25/the-behavioral-economics-of-free-software/

  14. crew nathon
    September 14, 2010 at 07:43

    Great post.Just to add Solr has been selected as the best open source applications. Lucid Imagination happens to be the first commercial organization dedicated to open source :http://www.lucidimagination.com/

  15. Diego M
    September 17, 2010 at 09:41

    As Steffen already pointed out: the opportunity to learn from the works of other trough their source code is a great deal for Education and Self-Education; it should be pointed out as a 7th dimension of Open Source.
    I was looking to some of the so called “coding/developing party”, which is a great and modern habit by which young developers meets together. Here Political, Social and Educational dimensions mix for very nice results.

  16. December 3, 2010 at 08:41

    Perfection. Thank you.

  17. September 15, 2011 at 18:29

    Exceptional site. Plenty of practical facts listed here. I am going to mailing it to a couple of good friends ans also sharing in delicious. As well as, good sweat!

  1. September 8, 2010 at 16:32
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