As some of you may know, I have been an active student and researcher of the Free/Open Source Software movements since 1998. Ever since I first encountered Linux, Apache and Perl in a bio-informatics lab at MIT – I have been intrigued by the “effortless” collaboration and cooperation behind the creation of open source products. Having seen the difficulties of product development inside of a large company – I was simply floored that such high quality products could be created in a community like setting. This combined with a course on user-based innovation by Eric von Hippel caused me to change my research direction and to foucs exclusively on models of distributed innovation as exemplified by the open source community. I can still clearly remember the day in July 1998 when Eric finally convinced me to drop bioinformatics in favour of studying open source. Many of my chums and colleagues shook their heads and said that I was chasing a fad. Well we now know better.
Most of my research has focussed on understanding the why and how of open source. Why it works the way it works and why it makes economic and organizational sense? So I was pleasantly surprised when Mitchell Baker from the Mozilla Foundation asked me to serve on an advisory committee to its Board to help determine the relationship between the Foundation and a new wholy owned, “taxable” subsidary. While Mozilla, its ancestors and its progeny have been well known for technical innovation. Very few have considered the social and organizational innovation done by the dedicated people working on the project. Keeping the Internet open for innovation has been their mantra and it can only be done if there is both good code AND good organzing ability. Starting with the landmark release of the source code from Netscape to the formation of Mozilla Foundation – the social innovations and adaptations to allow the evolution of a large scale code base to move from a proprietary company to a community have been remarkable. So the opportunity to participate in the discussion and advise around creating a new subsidary for the Foundation was a an opportunity that I just could not pass up, even though I have taken a vow of silence during my dissertation writing!
Here is why this so interesting from an organizational innovation perspective:
1) The technology world tends to be a battle between firms. Company “I” will go against Company “H”, Company “M” and Company “S” for technical and commercial supremacy. Firms know how to compete against one another. And certainly in the software world – Microsoft has shown repeatedly (1,2) how to defeat other competitors. But how does a company fight a community? Can it even do that? How does a company fight a not-for-profit foundation? Imagine Salvation Army Thrift Stores fighting and taking significant market share from Walmart. Imagine your friendly neighborhood Opera comany taking global market share away from Disney. It simply does not happen at any level of significance. However, the open source model has shown that community-based effort can and do win against commerical competitors. Even more interesting communities can cause commercial companies to make significant changes in strategy (E.g.: IBM and Sun embracing open source) based on their technical and market performance. That is why the new Mozilla Corporation is going to be such an interesting animal in the corporate jungle. On the one hand it will be a software development house – but on the other hand – its purpose is to promote innovation and openess on the internet by advancing the goals of its parent. I can just imagine the head scratching and shaking going on inside of companies trying to make sense of how to compete. The Foundation will no longer have to rely on charity for accomplishing its mission. Instead it now has the ability to generate significant resources and to actively promote its mission. Very cool!
2) The Foundation will now face a very new challenge of both running a company and also working with the community and an eco-system of value added developers. I have mapped out below the complex ecology. It is a non-trivial task but something that if done right will create a brand new model for organizing open source projects from a community perspective.
I firmly believe that this is not or should ever become something like a MySQL or JBoss type endeavour. Instead this a corporation with a public benefit misssion. Not a corporation with a profit mission. Profits matter a lot and will enable the corporation to serve its goals – but it is not the reason for its existence. It has to compete head on with Microsoft and Opera – but it cannot do it at the expense of promoting openness and innovation on the Internet. Running the corporation will not be any easy task but a an experiment well worth doing.
Finally I think this move has significant implications for social movements that care about changing the world at large. Most social movements are based on protest and boycotts. The means of fighting back against corporate and governmental institutions have always been to apply popular pressure on them. Open source communities have shown, that instead of protest, a focus on building alternative viable solutions can have much lasting and permanent impact. Building solutions that direclty compete in the marketplace puts pressure on firms in a way that boycotts and demonstration never can. Imagine if the living wage campaign, instead of just boycotting Nike, had formed an alternative company, lets call it Mikey!, producing hip athletic shoes and clothing made by fairly paid developing country workers. Imagine if they had created their own catchy slogans and gained significant market share against Nike. Imagine if the environmental movement had funded and created viable alternative sources of energy instead of merely protesting greenhouse gasses and nuclear power. Imagine the creation of GreenCar corporation manufacturing and selling hydrogen powered cars or ConSolar/Wind selling solar and wind generated electricity. Few social movements move beyond the repertoire of protest, disruption, violence, boycotts and show of solidarity in large numbers to the creation of whole, sustainable, alternative solutions in agreement with their concerns and grievances. This move by Mozilla Foundation is a further step in the right direction of social responsibility, profitability and community purpose.
I am sure I will blog more about this…but for now I am going back to my dissertation writing.