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2/2/2007
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How To Tell The Open Source Winners From The Losers

Businesses must know what to look for in a project's leadership, community, and level of innovation. The wrong choice can cost you.

There are 139,834 open source projects under way on SourceForge, the popular open source hosting site. Five years from now, only a handful of those projects will be remembered for making lasting contributions--most will remain in niches, unnoticed by the rest of the world. For every Linux, Apache, or MySQL, dozens of other open source efforts fizzle out.

That's a dilemma for the many companies that are expanding their use of open source. Corporate developers and other IT professionals must get better at divining the winners and ignoring the losers. The wrong picks can lead companies down a rat hole of support problems and obsolete software.

Good bets for the next round of open source innovation include the Mule enterprise service bus, Alfresco content management system, and Spring framework for Java applications. But what about the 139,831 other options?

One promising project on the bubble is OpenVista, software for managing health records and health care operations. OpenVista has a few things going for it: a strong code base, pressing demand, and a company bent on commercializing it. Yet OpenVista shows how leadership fissures that a proprietary software company might work through can become deep rifts in open source projects.

OpenVista was posted on SourceForge on June 6. It wasn't a big surprise; the posting had been promised several times by Medsphere, a company founded to commercialize OpenVista. But things unraveled quickly. In three weeks, Medsphere sued co-founder and CTO Steve Shreeve, who was responsible for the posting. In a complaint filed in Superior Court of Orange County, Calif., Medsphere charged that Shreeve and his older brother, Scott, Medsphere's chief medical officer at the time, had breached their fiduciary duty as directors, violated confidentiality agreements, and caused the company to suffer $50 million in damages. CEO Ken Kizer and board members contend that the Shreeves should have held a meeting before posting OpenVista to review what code would be released.

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Steve Shreeve responds that parts of the source code had been released two times previously without any meetings with the CEO or board of directors. "I'm the largest shareholder in the company," he fumes. The Shreeve brothers were fired in June after the blowup, saying they were only taking steps that are commonplace in nurturing an open source project, like creating a foundation around it.

Kizer argues the suit "is not about open source code. It's about corporate governance." He maintains the Shreeve brothers, after a falling-out with Kizer, tried to use open source as a cover for launching a separate venture. Steve Shreeve denies such an intent.

Now, without the Shreeves, Medsphere is again planning to launch OpenVista on SourceForge. Kizer's hope: "This will be a big event in health care, and a community will be attracted to OpenVista."

But Steve Shreeve thinks Medsphere has burned a bridge, destroying that intangible element of trust that

leads people to work on open source projects, as paid contributors, volunteer coders, or interested users offering vital suggestions. "How is any open source developer going to have a shred of confidence to work on this?" asks Shreeve. "How can they convincingly say they've released the code when they're suing me over its release?"

If building open source code requires tactful leadership, short lines of communication, and trust among team members, then OpenVista comes to the open source market with one hand tied behind its back. But those aren't the only factors businesses must assess. A review of successful open source projects, and insights from those who've led and implemented them, reveal common themes and metrics that can be used to measure a project's potential for success.

This story was updated Feb. 26.

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