Under the hood of the Open Source Awards

Today marks an important milestone for the open source community. It's the day that, for the first time in the movement's history, the community's elders begin to dole out cash awards--known as the Open Source Awards -- to the lesser known contributors whose efforts are critical to the vibrancy, viability, and preservation of the open source culture.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive
Today marks an important milestone for the open source community. It's the day that, for the first time in the movement's history, the community's elders begin to dole out cash awards--known as the Open Source Awards -- to the lesser known contributors whose efforts are critical to the vibrancy, viability, and preservation of the open source culture. The first recipients are Julian Seward for Valgrind, Paul Davis for JACK, the VideoLAN project, and the Pango project.

In July of 2003, John Graham-Cumming-a man who needs no introduction in open source circles because of his POPFile project -- circulated a proposal for an open source awards program to some of the most well known luminaries in the open source community. Graham-Cumming, who is probably deserving of such an award himself, knows all-too-well that the labor of developing and maintaining open source software is more often than not a labor of love.

You don't have to venture far beyond LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) to find those open source endeavors-- projects that as percentage of all open source code probably constitute the majority of code-- that helped the movement sustain its momentum, while leaving their main contributors with little more than the satisfaction of writing code and getting an occasional "thanks" from a user.

Open source naysayers point to this altruism as one of open source's biggest shortcomings as though, sooner or later, those developers will stop fishing and cut bait. Admittedly, back in 1996, as editor-in-chief of Windows Sources Magazine, I had those same doubts and said as much in several columns. But other editors with more vision than I saw open source's potential to free the proprietary ties that bind technologists while simultaneously driving down their total cost of ownership.

Whether directly through the implementation of open source or through now-free commercial technology--which would never have been free had it not been for the success of open source--we have all benefited from the passion and persistence of the open source community. Since those days, the code base has grown and open source software has been accepted by the tech industry, corporations, individuals and even governments.

Graham-Cumming carbon copied his open source awards proposal to a variety of technology editors in hopes that at least one would support such a program after seeing two key opportunities. First, to spotlight for readers some of the other potentially paradigm-shifting open source solutions from beyond the world of LAMP, and secondly, to give those efforts and the developers behind them the kind of recognition they deserve. This is not to say that those involved in LAMP or the ongoing development of commercially licensed software are unworthy of recognition. Graham-Cumming's inspiration for an awards program had to do with giving the driving forces behind the open source culture the additional motivation and recognition that they have so far endured without.

"Initially, I wrote PopFile for myself. I had a problem that needed solving--an itch to scratch as Eric Raymond says--and I used PERL to write PopFile for Windows," said Graham-Cumming. "After working on it for some time and perfecting it for myself, I realized I had something that would be useful to others and then had to decide whether to make it commercial, shareware, or open source. While I knew I wouldn't make enough to live off of it, I went the open source route. I realized that if I made it open source, other people would step forward to help me. I knew that one reward for me would be that I'd learn more about PERL than if I did it on my own. So, at first, it was a matter of personal growth for me. Eventually, though, there were two other rewards. First, PopFile, which has since become very popular, was simply a better piece of software than it would have been had I done it myself. Second, I was more marketable as a developer with my much improved skillset."

Having gone from zero to sixty in the open source world, Graham-Cumming knew the lifecycle of an open source project and the mindset of an open source developer well enough to know that some additional recognition was necessary. "There are literally tens of thousands of open source projects now," said Graham-Cumming. "Open source is no longer just a few people hacking away at code. It's a movement, and not only do we need a way to recognize those projects that are useful, well-written, and polished, we have to encourage more people to get involved in open source."

Open Source Initiative president Eric Raymond, who was one of the luminaries to which Graham-Cumming sent his original note, was emboldened by the idea's momentum and revived a plan for an open source awards program that he developed almost a decade ago. Almost as if to say to all previous technology awards programs (many of which I've been involved with), "Your Lucite pyramid trophies and the editorial mentions were nice, but let us show you how it's done," Raymond set out to redefine what a technology award is. With aspirations for a program akin to the Fields Medal, the Hugos, and even the Nobel Prize, Raymond spelled out a program involving Bronze, Silver and Gold medals accompanied by cash prizes ranging from $500 to $10,000.

In order to get the awards off the ground CNET Networks (the parent company of ZDNet) agreed to lend a hand in developing the concept and creating an event to launch the program. Subsequently, Hewlett-Packard, ActiveState (recently acquired by Sophos), US Venture Partners and O'Reilly & Associates pitched in. Whereas O'Reilly offered its annual open source conference as a venue, the former three provided the funding.

Considering the way she stepped up the plate, Hewlett-Packard's Stormy Peters may be deserving of an award herself. Peters, who is in charge of Hewlett-Packard's open source strategy, secured a $25,000 donation to the Open Source Awards from HP. "One of the things that makes the open source community work is that it's a meritocracy," Peters told me. "There's a lot of recognition internal to the community. But, whereas the community started out small and a lot of that recognition was face-to-face, now the community has grown and it happens by e-mail and phone calls. An awards program like this has great potential to preserve the meritocracy that makes open source great while restoring the face-to-face component of that recognition. So, we were happy to back it as long as some of the funding went to ensuring that award winners would be there, in-person, at the presentation to receive their award."

ActiveState chief technologist David Ascher echoed Peters' characterization of the open source community's intrinsic reward system. "The reason we committed to the awards is that open source is not only a key part of our business model, but also a key part of the software industry and the software infrastructure," said Ascher. "The whole ecology of open source is based technical meritocracy, so it's important for that ecology to remain healthy."

Responding to the question of how an awards program helps to maintain the health of the open source ecology, Ascher said, "It does that in a number of ways. First, it increases the visibility of open source to the broader market. The existence of an awards program and the fact that they have a financial component and not just a reputation component makes open source more real to many observers, including those who are considering open source technologies when making software decisions. The other part is that if you reward people who have done good things, they will repeat that and do more good things."

Peters' and Ascher's comments make it clear that their donations are about not only preserving, but also strengthening a culture that for so long was considered a kind of techno lunatic fringe. It speaks volumes about how well some members of the established commercial community not only understand open source, but how they've come to fully embrace it.

And what does Eric Raymond, who is finally seeing a plan he wrote ten years come to fruition think? "These contributors are saying, 'Hey, we use this kind of development and we want to see the community flourish.' The fact that companies like HP are willing to put five figures into an award means that we have arrived. We have hit the big time."

So, if you're a developer, what are you waiting for? Get busy.

You can write to me at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check the archives.

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