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A Multi-dimensional View of the "Sustainability" of Free & Open Source Software Development

Aug 2006
Working Paper
By  Paul A. David

Questions of “sustainability” are at the core of much of the speculative discussion about the long-term significance of the open source software movement, and particularly the characteristic community-based mode of developing FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) that is associated with large and successful projects such as Linux, Apache, GNOME, KDE, Mozilla, Firefox and MySQL. Advice directed to communities involved in individual projects tends to focus almost exclusively on the need to secure funding by developing a ‘business model ’ that yields direct or indirect sponsorship of firms that will expect to profit by marketing complementary goods and services. This presentation addresses and different issue, and take a different approach by considering several key determinants of the sustainability of the FLOSS production mode, viewing the latter from a “systems perspective.” Three dimensions of long-term viability are considered in this connection: the recruitment and retention of developers’ participation and the persistence of project-community commitment, the rate of innovation that is sustainable through the founding of new projects, and the maintainability of large projects as they grow and add functionality. A review of recent empirical research relating to those three dimensions of concern serves at least to dispel some of the doubts that that have been voiced about the survival the “open source” paradigm of community-based peer production of information goods. The outlook for the future, however, is far from perfectly rosy: the concluding section of the presentation calls attention to a longer list of potentially difficult challenges that will need to be met in order assure the success of “the FLOSS way of working.”

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paul david
paul a. david