The value of Open Development

Mark's recent blogpost on Raring community skunkworks got me thinking. I agree it would be unfair to spin this story as Canonical/Ubuntu switching to closed development. I also agree that (as the damage control messaging was quick to point out) inviting some members of the community to participate in closed development projects is actually a step towards more openness rather than a step backwards.

That said, it certainly is making the "closed development" option more official and organized, which is not a step in the right direction in my opinion. It reinforces it as a perfectly valid option, while I would really like it to be an exception for corner cases. So at this point, it may be useful to insist a bit on the benefits of open development, and why dropping them might not be that good of an idea.

Open Development is a transparent way of developing software, where source code, bugs, patches, code reviews, design discussions, meetings happen in the open and are accessible by everyone. "Open Source" is a prerequisite of open development, but you can certainly do open source without doing open development: that's what I call the Android model and what others call Open behind walls model. You can go further than open development by also doing "Open Design": letting an open community of equals discuss and define the future features your project will implement, rather than restricting that privilege to a closed group of "core developers".

Open Development allows you to "release early, release often" and get the testing, QA, feedback of (all) your users. This is actually a good thing, not a bad thing. That feedback will help you catch corner cases, consider issues that you didn't predict, get outside patches. More importantly, Open Development helps lowering the barrier of entry for contributors to your project. It blurs the line between consumers and producers of the software (no more "us vs. them" mentality), resulting in a much more engaged community. Inviting select individuals to have early access to features before they are unveiled sounds more like a proprietary model beta testing program to me. It won't give you the amount of direct feedback and variety of contributors that open development gives you. Is the trade-off worth it ?

How much as I dislike the Android model, I understand that the ability for Google to give some select OEMs a bit of advance has some value. Reading Mark's post though, it seems that the main benefits for Ubuntu are in avoiding early exposure of immature code and get more splash PR effect at release time. I personally think that short-term, the drop in QA due to reduced feedback will offset those benefits, and long-term, the resulting drop in community engagement will also make this a bad trade-off.

In OpenStack, we founded the project on the Four Opens: Open Source, Open Development, Open Design and Open Community. This early decision is what made OpenStack so successful as a community, not the "cloud" hype. Open Development made us very friendly to new developers wanting to participate, and once they experienced Open Design (as exemplified in our Design Summits) they were sold and turned into advocates of our model and our project within their employing companies. Open Development was really instrumental to OpenStack growth and adoption.

In summary, I think Open Development is good because you end up producing better software with a larger and more engaged community of contributors, and if you want to drop that advantage, you better have a very good reason.