Open source growth changes the definition of community

As open source rushes up the "s" curve of demand, the definitions of community and customer change.

In his Ignite talk to a recent Italian Innovators Barcamp, my friend Roberto Galoppini hit upon something quite interesting.

As open source rushes up the "s" curve of demand, the definitions of community and customer change.

(Above, Google's home page tribute to the Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci.)

When you are creating innovation, the shared work of a development community is the key to success. People who write software are your constituency. You must do all you can to serve them.

Your success is a shared experience of hitting development milestones. Consumers are part of the puzzle, but mainly as beta testers -- in a way they're developers too.

Once the software is out the door the definitions change. Now developers aren't just part of the community, they're customers. You still need some help on the code base, but you are really trying to turn as many as possible into Value Added Resellers -- you are trying to build them into a supply chain.

This is where the "conversion ratio" -- that mid-decade be-all and end-all definition of open source success, comes into focus. You are now looking for financial as well as development support. You want money from people, not just time.

Even if you stick with one open source license, you are now higher on the open source incline than a start-up would be. This is where a lot of tool makers focus on "shared source," closing off the secret source while still trying to expand their community.

Finally you hit the mass market. Hopefully.

Here your task is to spread the money around so as to grow rapidly. Now you need people to start making money from their add-ons, so you build a marketplace for them. Now you're trying to get money from ordinary users.

It's here where things can get muddy. For many mass-market open source success stories, like Firefox and Open Office, success in getting money can also mean denying money to someone else, in this case Microsoft. Monetizing a mass open source market is very hard, which is why the best model so far is to turn it into a product or a service.

What's remarkable about this analysis is that Google is forced by circumstance to live in all three worlds simultaneously. So the early-stage work on the Chrome OS runs into a media that is also looking at the mid-market efforts of Android and the mass market monetization of the base service and getting muddled.

You don't expect a single vendor to be in many spots on the board at once. You want them to stay in one place. But in open source, in Google's case, and increasingly in the case of other open source firms entering the mass market while still trying to do new things, that focus may be counter-productive.

Something worth thinking about this weekend. Maybe Google isn't really out-of-focus, a contrast to how sharply a company like Apple can be seen.

Maybe that's just the way it needs to behave in order to keep growing, when some of what it does is mass market, some is seeking a market, and some is just starting out, all in the full light of day.