back to article Don't touch this! Seven types of open source to dance away from

In a world where even Microsoft gets the open source religion, the planet’s overall quota for positivity and good karma must be increasing, right? Of course this is not the case, there are bad eggs in every basket and open source has had its share of so-called “openwashing” from time to time. For the record, it’s not Microsoft …

  1. elDog

    And anything about the companies that "openwash" a product

    And hope to make money off the support and documentation? I've seen hundreds of products that have been thrown into the washing machine since they were getting old, had crummy documentation, lacked real support.

    I wish these companies well and also wish the potential customers that pick these up for a look-see good luck. Chances are the hassles of installing, maintaining, figuring out how to use will be fairly large.

    However, if there is a pretty strong user group or a real commercial entity that will do some support, these can be a great bargain.

  2. James 51

    Any recommendations based on good practice?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Recommendations based on Best Practices

      0. Look for a clear, unified architectural vision. Often this in turn means a single person represents the vision -- Spring, Rails, Linux of course; sometimes it can come from a small, close-knit group -- when Eclipse was just an IDE, it came out of a very small group of like-minded people. And sometimes it can come from a single vendor, but that's more complicated...

      Antipattern: a bunch of vendors pool some technologies, but nobody is clearly driving.

      1. Motivation matters. It's often the case that strong successful projects represent some group of people's desire for something that they themselves need. So naturally they will do a good job. Git and Spring (again) come to mind. Of course, this only works well if what you want is aligned with what the founders want; and the big danger is that the project will plateau once it meets the founders' needs.

      Antipattern: weak vendors banding together to try to create an "open" alternative to a market leader that is crushing them commercially

      2. Community building & binding. One of the hallmarks of a thriving open source community is that it finds way for people at various levels of technical sophistication to contribute, without necessarily understanding all the code. That can be through subprojects that are well contained; or extension points; or APIs / automation points; etc. (Even somebody like me who hasn't coded professionally for years was able to contribute to Linux by finding and fixing a build script bug; or to Puppet by testing and critiquing the Intro Labs. The broader a project can make the base of the pyramid, the more likely it is to succeed. Apache Mods is one of the best early examples of this.

      Antipattern: the code is a monolithic mess that is nominally open but effectively closed to anybody but a career developer paid to contribute to it.

  3. Will Godfrey Silver badge


    No mention of non-commercial projects at all, some of which are absolutely brilliant, but would be rejected by that checklist.

    1. Antonymous Coward

      Re: Odd


      Along a similar vein, I've found diversity of contributors to be *far* more telling than quantity. Just because some corporation happens to be condescending to "support" some project now doesn't mean it won't hesitate to drop that project in a flash, whenever the whim might arise... and all that's usually left is some ghastly morass which no-one else on earth wants to touch. I suppose this was the gist of the article's point 2 but somehow is seemed to get buried among all that "it's all about the money" guff. It's *all* about the leadership. Not meaning to sound socialist but a healthy (well-run/exciting/productive/enjoyable/whatever...) open source project seems to attract a broad "community" of developers - to such a striking degree that diversity seems to be an extremely reliable canary.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Potemkin villages"

    That list pretty much describes Redhat...

    1. kryptylomese

      Re: "Potemkin villages"

      Nah Redhat are doing just fine thank you - You must mean Microsoft after their Nokia losses and lay offs.....

      1. asdf

        Re: "Potemkin villages"

        >Nah Redhat are doing just fine thank you

        Commercially yes but on a business model of destroying POSIX once and for all becoming Microsoft lite in the process.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

          Re: "Potemkin villages"


          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: "Potemkin villages"

            "I think what you will see is Red Hat, and our technologies, will be the default choice for the next generation of computing, in the same way that in the client/server era Microsoft was the default choice. I think in the cloud, mobile world, open source and Red Hat’s technologies will be the default choice for that next generation of computing."


        2. John Gamble

          Re: "Potemkin villages"

          "... but on a business model of destroying POSIX..."

          Is that a Red Hat solo act though? (I genuinely don't know, which is why I'm asking. I had the impression that this was a Linux trait in general.)

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: "Potemkin villages"

      Yep, RedHat's commitment to open source is just as much lip service as anyone else's.

      1. asdf

        Re: "Potemkin villages"

        >Is that a Red Hat solo act though? (I genuinely don't know, which is why I'm asking. I had the impression that this was a Linux trait in general.)

        >Yep, RedHat's commitment to open source is just as much lip service as anyone else's.

        These are related. Yes in general GNU/Linux has never placed much of a premium on POSIX (but enough people early on kept it pretty compatible) but Red Hat has went out of their way to push GNU/Linux to completely ignore it and by extension make as much other OSS GNU/Linux only as possible in the long term. I will admit they did this by doing what Red Hat has done a lot of and that is write code in the Linux ecosystem. They do actually have somewhat of a commitment to open source for now as long as it basically stays Linux only where they make all their money on the support. I guess the trojan horse of selling closed source stuff will come at the end. kdbus is a big enabler in that direction.

  5. Notas Badoff

    Long-term stewardship

    Nodejs was mentioned, but not the most illustrative aspect there of the uncertain effects of 'stewardship' by a corporation with its own goals.

    Not too long past the second/third highest contributor by commit count was hung out to dry by the corporate steward, Joyent. For Ben Noordhuis English is a second language. He did not at one point have the required 'sensitivity' to the extreme viewpoints regarding gendered language. Seeing some dubious pull request come in from a previously unknown person whose sole content was changes of gendered words in documention, he said whoa, what is this for and what good is this doing the project?

    Within hours his commit bit was yanked by Joyent, who reacted to the drafted webmob wielding pitchforks by saying "Ben who?". And then went on to post to their public corporate blog that "we believe that empathy is a core engineering value" and "if this were the act of a Joyent employee, we would—to deliberately use a gender-neutral pronoun—fire them", very prominently identifying Ben by full name.

    While posturing that this was all about respect for others, they did not take enough time to respect one of their core contributors and straighten things out. They did not clear the air but added more nitromethane to the pyre. "Mob, *we* are *with* you!"

    How does this tie in with one of the points in the article's list? Ben worked for a Joyent competitor. In a flash Joyent burned him to shine a better light on themselves.

    Can you trust a corporate steward to value you and your efforts? Seems it does depend which steward.

    (After an intervening fork, 1.5 years later Nodejs is shifting governance models subtly away from Joyent. I can hope it has nothing to do with their sordid behaviour. At least, that is what everyone is publicly saying.)

    1. fshute

      Re: Long-term stewardship

      Thanks for the informative post, Notas Badoff.

      "we believe that empathy is a core engineering value"

      They should have added not just "empathy" but "weasel-words" , "political correctness" and "wacky beliefs" too.

      It's a long time since I studied engineering (mech/man) but "empathy" wasn't something on the course or for that matter considered a core value.

      If I was a developer contributing to any OS project and that happened, I would have been out of there like a shot.

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Long-term stewardship

      "we believe that empathy is a core engineering value"

      That's seriously retarded. Sounds like something coming from the femaled hipster part of the marketing department.

      1. Rosie Davies

        Re: Long-term stewardship

        Yeah I am late to the party, fashionably so I like to think. Picking on an organisation firmly grounded in the whale song and dream catchers like the IET say, they have a vision statement here: A bit of snippage from the values section: "We treat everyone with integrity and respect". A quick Google for define:respect gets a list which includes "due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others". Whilst it's not quite the same as empathy, I'd venture to suggest that it's near enough in intent.

        All the professional codes of conduct that I've read, either for an employer or a professional organisation have something similar in them. I feel this suggests that the complaints about the behaviour were due to it being unprofessional rather that not-PC. Though TBH the response does seem a bit heavy handed but people seem to be a bit overly keen on damning someone to hell before understanding their motivations fully. Which also sounds like a lack of empathy.



  6. Amos

    Overall openwashing is a good thing.

    ... regardless of how we may feel about the practice.

    One of the major outstanding problems with todays technology is the closed-source code driving pieces from individual chips to complex mechanical systems.

    Simply having the code visible publicly allows the technology using it to be maintained in the long term. Perhapse commercially from what started as openwashed code. Perhapse replaced by properly FOSS projects later down the line after the commercial support evaporates.

    As our world gets ever more mechanised by the IoT trends this openwashing behaviour plays a vital role in sustainability.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I tried to read your article but I'm afraid I can't make head or tail of it. May I respectfully ask what are your open source credentials?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Adrian

      Either the arguments stand on their own merits or they don't. Their correctness does not depend on Adrian's "credentials" or authority.

      It's almost like it's a ... uh... meritocracy.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Adrian

        > Either the arguments stand on their own merits or they don't.

        That's not quite correct, except in some very formal cases. Otherwise, arguments are influenced by the domain knowledge of the argumentor. Hence the question.

    2. Hans 1

      Re: Adrian

      @Adrian, did you read the article ?

      He read Whitehurst's book and decided to write up an article on the matter, then, he also got some info from a bloke apparently working for a research center named "Forester Research", you know, the shop that is competing with Gartner for the "Purveyor of Most Gullible BS of the year" award.

  8. Goobertee

    >>Licensing being the thorny issue that it is, this point is probably inevitable if still

    >>disappointing. Open of course means that an unlicensed version of software

    >>must always exist, for free.

    In the USA, as soon as you write something, including software, its copyright belongs to the author unless/until it is assigned or licensed or specifically released into the public domain. Software that has no license you can find is a problem, as rights to it belong to its source (perhaps most often the author) and don't belong to anybody else. If someone uses it without getting a license to it, she/he stands the chance the copyright holder could claim compensation for its use.

    A second matter is there is no requirement that "free" software, "free" as in "freedom," be available for "free," as in "free beer." Using "free" to mean two different things is a source of confusion in some cases. Some license somewhere might prohibit charging, but the definitions published by the Free Software Foundation do not.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > Some license somewhere might prohibit charging,

      I would have to look it up, but I seem to recall that if your licence were to impose such a restriction, it would no longer be considered a free software licence by the FSF (Free Software Foundation).

  9. Charlie Clark Silver badge
    Thumb Down


    As a company involved in numerous open source projects for more than 20 years, it’s safe to say that Red Hat does a fair bit of open source.

    That's a very poor premise. RedHat's relationship with open source is not much better than other large companies. It talks a good talk but when it comes to walking the walk, well look at those licensing conditions.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: RedHat

      > It talks a good talk but when it comes to walking the walk, well look at those licensing conditions.

      Please expand on your argument. What about those licensing conditions?

  10. Dr_Barnowl

    Avoiding projects without copyright assignment... well, a mixed blessing.

    Copyright assignment discourages contributions from all but those with the most serious need to scratch their itches, because it erects a barrier - at the minimum it's extra paperwork, at the other end, you may need to get executive approval from your boss to release the copyright on "your work".

    It also creates paranoia. If you assign the copyright for your work to a company, nothing stops them re-licensing that code however they like. They can take the code private and profit from your efforts. No-one likes to be taken for a mug.

    The converse, projects composed of mixed copyright code find it harder to change license - which means they are more likely to remain as open as they were before.

    When LibreOffice forked from OpenOffice, it took most of the core contributors with it - and ditched copyright assignment. It's by far the more vibrant project.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    What a load of hogwash. Any GPL licensed project that is sponsored by a company is simply a way for companies to make money off of free software development. The users rights are not considered in the equation. Do you really think RedHat allows commits that would advantage a rival such as IBM or Oracle without some gain for themselves?

    The GPL ensures that nobody can take the software and innovate it and gain a competitive advantage, thereby giving the sponsoring company a huge pool of development with no risk. Mr. Stallman is the only person that still believes in the socialist bent of open source. If a company is involved, the pursuit of money is the only reason it exists.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hogwash

      Any GPL licensed project that is sponsored by a company is simply a way for companies to make money off of free software development.

      "Any GPL licensed project that is sponsored by a company is simply a way for companies to make money from free software development."

      You're welcome.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Hogwash yourself.

      Any GPL licensed project that is sponsored by a company is simply a way for companies to make money off of free software development. The users rights are not considered in the equation.

      The company may consider them or not consider them as much or little as it wants, but the users' rights don't come from the company, they come from the GPL, and as such are guaranteed and legally enforceable.

      The GPL ensures that nobody can take the software and innovate it and gain a competitive advantage

      Those who complain that they can't just expropriate and enclosure the work of others for their own personal gain without any quid pro quo are generally engaged in special pleading rather than any principled stand in defence of "users' rights" - which I notice you carefully failed to define.

  12. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

    What's a rubric without subjective, ill-defined measures?

    Here's my list:

    1. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    I'm interested in code that contains something useful. If I pick up an open-source project, I'd better be damned ready to support it myself, to the extent that it remains valuable to me.

    That's how we did things in the PS (Pre-Stallman) era, and they worked Just Fine.

    Damn it, where's jake when I need a fellow curmudgeon?

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    RedHat EULA

    I think you will find that every Red Hat commercial distribution has a EULA preventing redistribution as is. Red Hat commercial distributions are neither free as in beer nor free as in freedom. Sure you can get the source but just try and build it without a world of pain.

    1. Missing Semicolon Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: RedHat EULA

      Yes, but RHEL is still open source. And RedHat do the right think by publishing the actual source (not just a pointer to, as some crappy router manufacturers do), so that you could regenerate it yourself. Or, save a load of time, and download CentOS.

  14. Andy 73 Silver badge

    Measure of 'goodness'

    The trap this immediately falls into is making the assumption that being open source is some measure of the saintly measure of a project or company. You may as well check whether the owners have made charitable donations or take in sick animals (no, not developers).

    The intent behind open sourcing a project, and the actual end effect doesn't sit on some single continuum between 'evil and cynical' and 'advancing the cause of mankind' any more than the actual software itself is purely saintly or nasty.

    When you engage with any project, open source or otherwise, the question has to be whether doing so will meet your goals - and you must recognise that your goals and the owner's goals may be many and varied and wildly different. Not good or bad, just more or less aligned. A single corporate committer may be quite acceptable if you simply need their current release to perform a task in a nice stable environment. Equally, a project may be of no use if its' large and active community wish to introduce breaking changes or pursue new developments that don't sit with your specific use case. Some projects open source a component so small that it's useless in isolation - like a new type of bolt for building an oil rig. Others open source the entire world safe in the knowledge that the chances of you being able to replicate a functional environment is nil - like being given the plans for a steam train with a note saying that building the rail network is a task left up to the developer. None of these are necessarily signs of good or bad intent - just different ways projects may be run.

    The only consistent warning sign I've come across are those projects where the owner is enthusiastic to point out that the project is good simply because it's open source. Suddenly I get the strong whiff of snake oil.

  15. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge


    When I start using a project, I will also simply look to see if it's been out for a while, and appears to be well developed. I look to see if the docs are good enough to figure out how to use it, and try it to see if it does what I want it to do. Some projects are pretty inactive because they are mature -- look at some of the GNU utils, they are simple, focused utilities that already do everything they claim to do, and have had the bugs worked out for years. Of course, if you are planning to use these utilities online (like to provide some service to the internet at large), you better make sure that project is active enough so if security holes pop up they are dealt with.

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