Open source has a life of its own, to be sure. But without warm bodies in the driver's seat, there's no more going on than with any other program that has no human component.
Matthew Aslett of the 451 Goup talked about this very problem in a recent blog post, while discussing the problem of open source software that failed to find a new life after being re-released as open source. As he put it:
There is a fine line between life after death and the living dead and the release of code under an open source license is no guarantee of re-birth.
I couldn't agree more.
Open source requires two things to work: code, and developers. The former is cheap, the latter priceless. A big part of why I've been so uneasy about what's happened to MySQL has nothing to do with the codebase and everything to do with the programming team who were responsible for creating the program and moving it forward. Without them, there was no MySQL project -- and you can't just snap your fingers and pull a team of similar engagement and ability out of nowhere. It doesn't work like that in commercial software, and I've never seen it happen in open source either.
Matt's comments about moribund projects arrived just in time for a warning about another open source project I've long held in high regard: the VLC video player. They no longer have anyone doing active development for the Macintosh GUI. There ought to still be a Mac version for some time to come, but it won't be one with a Mac-native interface -- rather, it'll be one that uses Qt or some other cross-platform GUI toolkit to do the heavy lifting. (Open source apps that generally flourish on Windows and Linux don't seem to have much of a presence on the Mac, and I've long wondered if that was because Mac developers would rather spend their time on other things.)
I am not going to try and use this as an argument against volunteerism in software engineering. Clearly anyone who feels they can contribute, should try. But whatever they're contributing to needs to be run with at least some eyes turned towards building and keeping a team.
People make open source happen. Code alone doesn't cut it.
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