Open is the new closed? – Bringing transparency to Open source by separating Open source licensing models and Open source governance models ..

This is a fascinating idea from my good friend Dr Andreas Constantinou the founder of VisionMobile. I heard this on Paul Golding’s podcast with Andreas and I summarise the idea below ..

Note: To put this in context, Andreas is speaking of Open source here(not for instance Open standards or Open APIs)

At first, Open is the new closed sounds like a contradiction ..

However, he separates the ideas of Open source licensing models and Open source governance models

Open source licensing models are all converging around

weak copyleft and non-copyleft (at least in mobile). In general, that means .. for any project to be Open sourced, by definition the code has to be released. Open source claims to reduce the cost of software development by sharing the cost of common building blocks across multiple entities

However, the Open source governance models are increasingly being controlled by companies with a commercial motivation… and that’s what Andreas means by saying that Open is the new closed. For instance: For all the buzz around Android, the Android governance model is actually not yet released, same with Symbian. Both of which are poster children for Open source.

Control of open source governance models can be exercised in many ways – for instance control on who can contribute, transparency and control of decision making, branching policy for code, who can be a part of committees etc etc ..

That’s why I said that the Sun Java open source model needs to be considered in light of it’s branding caveats (and for that matter – the same issue arises in most open source implementations – but most people do not see it and worse still, marketers will hype the word ‘Open’!) Why should any government promote a private company’s brand (Java) under the guise of Open source?

So, what does this mean? Here are my thoughts ..

a) Is Open(source) the new closed? Certainly, the details and complexity of open source are unclear to many and especially the governance implications of open source are not clear. So, by summarising it so succinctly, Andreas has done a great job! In other words, people take the simpler view that Open source means that they can ‘view the source’. That is only half the story .. as we have seen before. Actually, to make matters worse, most people confuse ‘open source’, ‘open standards’ and other aspects of open .. but that’s not the subject of this blog!

b) Read the small print and the governance model. For ex: see this 24 page document from the eclipse foundation ..(pdf) lots of goodies and small print here .. for the lawyers .. clearly control exercised by ‘Strategic developer managers’

c) 80/20 rule for Open source development. 80% of the source is ‘open’ i.e. under whatever licence is visible. You then need a further 20% to productise it. That’s definitely ‘closed’ in many cases since it is tied to intellectual property and / or revenue models.

d) Is the idea of ‘Open is the new closed’ bad in itself? No. Every model has a place in the ecosystem. As does Open source. I think what is needed is transparency. That’s the whole point

e) What about competition and business models? Open source is simply changing the emphasis of business models to areas where there is differentiation. Open source does have business models – some of which may not be as transparent and also clearly there is intellectual property restrictions

f) What about innovation? In my view, innovation is a misunderstood term. In most cases, when people are talking of innovation – they are really referring to the commercialisation of innovation(unless they are truly in the non-profit/voluntary sector). In that case, in my view, the emphasis shifts to the 20% in the 80/20 rule and that 20% is closed

g) What about cost? 80% may be free .. but the 20% may be VERY expensive. This is certainly true in the mobile world which I understand best i.e. when most people refer to open source as free .. they are not really clear about the break-up in costs

To conclude:

I think that the idea of ‘Open is the new closed’ brings transparency to the world of Open source by separating the licensing model and the governance model for open source and that transparency is definitely needed since there is a lot of confusion out there about the word ‘Open’


  1. Rigo Wenning says:

    Very nice analysis and very nice idea. This is another angle to explain why standardization is so important for open source. It is just a neutral environment for relaxed development of some cute open source technology. After all, standardization today is a governance model. At least at W3C, it creates some security frame against patent or trademark driven special agendas by having a due process and a neutral hub.