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The “open” part of open source doesn’t mean “free”

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Open Source OSS InterConnect

It’s a common misconception that opening the source code for a product is a fast, easy path to success. After all, how much easier can it get than to have other developers fix your bugs, add new features and answer support questions?

That panacea is what draws so many misguided tech companies to releasing open source software (OSS) versions of their products. They aim to draw in crowds of free-version users that will undoubtedly shift over to becoming paid subscribers of a different offering.

Let’s take a good look at that “free” offering and see what it really means to the programmer providing it to the developer community.

Free marketing?

There are a lot of OSS repositories out there. If you are using your open source project to drive downloads and build a lead funnel, you will have to spend as much or possibly more on marketing budget as you would for a traditional project. If you are using it as a recruitment tool for new developers, or to build community around your software, you will still have to allocate some investment to getting the word out that you’re in the OSS space.

Free community management?

Let’s say promoting your product goes well and the community grows the way you hoped it would. Now you need to manage that community. And it’s potentially two communities – users and contributors – each making their own demands on your time.

Users want documentation, support and the ability to request new features. You will need to make sure you have someone listening and responding to all of that feedback. Successful open source projects often have an engaged set of advocates who can help you. But you need to constantly nurture that group to make sure they stay engaged.

Contributors are looking for a way to make a difference. They could be your most valuable commodity. But you will have to work with them to make sure they understand the vision of the product. And you will need to engage in a dialog about the contributions you need against the contributions they want to make.

Free repository management?

Oh, and let’s not forget that you also have a bunch of code and documentation to maintain. Performing code reviews, merging pull requests and ensuring the documentation is up-to-date requires a level of staffing that people often forget to allocate. Like any good software, an OSS project is only as good as its underlying code sanitation. With a lot of contributors, this becomes an important part of your mission as the project owner.

OSS drives some of the most rewarding collaboration and innovation in our industry. But it’s important to see it as an investment in time, money and staffing if you want to be successful.

To learn more about Open Source, join me and several other experts at the Open Technology Summit at IBM InterConnect in Las Vegas on March 19, 2017.

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