The strong community of volunteer developers is often cited as an advantage to adopting open source technology. But these communities can also be a drawback. The involvement of many developers can lead to disagreement and confusion that can prevent a project from moving forward.
One long awaited open source project is the release of JDK 7. A recent discussion on TheServerSide.com questions whether the open-sourcing of the Java Runtime Environment is not to blame for the delays in its release schedule.
"One can't help wonder if the delay in the release of Java 7 doesn't have something to do with the fact that the production of this particular version is being driven by Java's open source development community," wrote Cameron McKenzie, editor of TheServerSide.com. "Are delayed releases simply the price we pay for an of an open source implementation of the JDK?"
Reader responses seemed to suggest that open source could have something to do with the holdup. "I would imagine open-sourcing would have some impact. You have to be much more rigorous to create a truly interoperable spec," wrote a commenter named James Watson. Commenter Christoph Kutzinski seemed to agree. "I guess the whole open sourcing of the JDK has cost a lot of resources so the delay is kind of understandable" said Kutzinski.
Still, open source does not always slow down a project. "Aren't there other open sourced products which are always on schedule, or at least not two years late?" wrote commenter Sapankumar Parikh. "[A] couple I know are KDE, openSUSE, Ubuntu, Eclipse, Ruby on Rails. I don't think it is the open source community which is the reason for delayed release."
McKenzie does not place the blame on the open source community, but he does believe its role in the delay is worth considering. "It's wrong to point the finger at the open source community for this unusual delay in getting a new JDK release," he wrote. "But it does beg the question, 'why has it taken so long?' Is it simply that there is no huge desire to move from Java6 to Java7, or is there something more political or nefarious going on behind the scenes?"
"Political turmoil" can hinder open source projects
While JDK 7 will is a unique example, McKenzie brings up an issue that affects many open source projects. The unusual politics that occur within open source communities are a drawback to open source development.
"The problem with open source can sometimes be political turmoil," said Jeff Genender, an author and developer. "You get different factions of folks that want different components in an open source product. There's a lot of voting that can go on."
That democratization occurs because open source projects lack the structure and rank often present within commercial product development teams. Instead, informal leadership must emerge. "The person who started the project gets called 'benevolent dictator for life,'" said author and developer Eugene Ciurara. "You have to be as good a technologist as a politician."
Political tact is necessary for the success of a project. "If you become too much of a dictator you're going to turn people off and they're going to go away," said Ciurara. "On the other hand, if you let too many opinions people will start losing interest because the code will keep going back and forth and never reach a release date."
The politics of open source are tied to its economics. Unlike the lead on a commercial product, the benevolent dictator for a freely available open source product may not have any financial stake in what he oversees. "[As an open source customer] you have no leverage by which to convince this vendor that you need this bug fixed" said author and developer Ted Neward. "You can certainly throw money at the problem, but that's a different kind of economic engagement." This requirement to work outside the traditional economic model makes a lot of companies wary of open source.
Watch the complete interviews with Genender, Ciurara, and Neward at the SearchSOA.com video library.