Ben Laurie blathering

Why Open Is Better Than Proprietary?

First of all watch this fascinating TED talk by Dan Pink. Watch it all the way to the end: I promise it is worth it. Then consider this…

I’ve long argued that open source provides a clear economic benefit (and hence incentive). However, I’ve always had a bit of a nagging feeling that there’s more to it than that but have never been satisfied by sociologists’ lame attempts at explanations. Perhaps Dan Pink’s observations fill in that missing piece. Autonomy, mastery and purpose – open source development provides all three of these to developers, in copious quantities.

  • Autonomy: you choose what you work on, when you work on it, and how you work on it.
  • Mastery: putting all your work out there in public view gets you great feedback – and many studies have shown that people don’t improve without external feedback. Furthermore, seeing what other people have done is a fantastic learning resource.
  • Purpose: most open source projects have a purpose that goes beyond the mere development of the software – for example, Apache exists to serve up web pages better than anything else does – and the higher purpose is greater democratisation and freedom for everyone. not just the developers. OpenSSL exists to protect people from invasions of the privacy and theft of their data. It’s not just a geek toy, it’s critical infrastructure for the new world we are moving into.

It seems that economics is not the only thing that makes open source better.


  1. Yup.

    But, a few things – mostly just piling on.

    I think the point about mastery is that people are most productive when the work is well impedance matched with their skills and level of competence. The breadth of affordances provided by open source can improve the chances of a good impedance match. Thus if what you excel at nitpicking typos – we can use you – if what you excel is refactoring large code bases – we can use you – if what you excel at is pouring oil on the water when brilliant a-social people get into pissing matches – we can use you. This lets you practice your talents, and so they improve – which is nice. To a lesser degree it lets you find your fellow travelers – which is nice.

    I was an advocate in all activities of pulling on the purpose lever – but I’m less sure about that. People tend to pull on it too hard, and in many cases it’s a poor long term motivator. This is particularly true when you get down to having only purpose driven contributors. So I’m not against it, I just have my doubts.

    There is a large literature on what motivates your labor pool. It sometimes uses the ugly term “labor utilization” as in discount airlines achieve 3% of their over all cost advantage thru improved labor utilization. So that list of Pink is one of many enumerations of which levers are effective for what purposes.

    That intrinsic motivators trump extrinsic ones is well known. But it is so much easier to to pull the extrinsic motivator lever; and highly diversified investors (i.e. the owners) only care about the extrinsic so there is a mismatch.

    Mazlow’s heirarchy of needs is always fun. My favorite insight about that being that people uniformly believe that others are motivated by things further down the hierarchy then they are.

    My favorite list of five levers longer than Pink’s: Appreciation – which is expressed, Affiliation – which is built, Autonomy – which is respected, Status – which is acknowledged, Role – which is chosen and fulfilling. That absence of purpose is, yes, a flaw.

    Open source practitioners would do well to practice expression of appreciation and acknowledgment of status. Be do a great job of autonomy (since you can develop entirely in private), and at allowing role to be chosen.

    Comment by Ben Hyde — 3 Sep 2009 @ 15:32

  2. I don’t see evidence here that open source is better. It seems to me you were looking for confirmation and found it. The theories of motivation generally indicate that intrinsic motivators are better. If, for you, open source provides that better than its alternatives, then open source would be smarter for you. But there are more traditional approaches and organizations that can do this just as well (though maybe not for you).

    Please don’t argue with me about the merits of open source. I don’t have an opinion on the matter. But I do have an opinion on the link between the studies that Dan Pink presented and your point about open source.

    Comment by Adam — 6 Sep 2009 @ 23:39

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress