Friday, September 22, 2006

The Open Source Hunt

Recently Don Smith has blogged about the Factors Contributing to the Success of Open Source (part 2, part 3). I share an interest in these sorts of questions about open source -- why engage in open source development? What is "success" in this context? and so on. In particular, I've found it very useful to compare open source business models, project management, and development methodologies with those used by commerical projects/products. The more I've worked on open source and with open source communities, the more I've been struck by the similarities, rather than the differences, with the more traditional alternatives. Not to say that open source doesn't innovate in a number of important ways, but rather that it is very easy to overlook shared aspects. Doing so, we run the very real risk of attributing capabilities to open source that are unlikely, creating more heat than light by over-hyping the benefits of a so-called "new world" (or "paradigm shift").

Anyway, I find these sorts of comparisons fascinating, and would appreciate discussing them with the community. To start off a series of posts thinking about open source in this way, I'd like to introduce the open source hunt for your consideration.

Game Theory has been studying collaboration, cooperation and competition in a variety of contexts and has proposed a number of models. Although Game Theory has been criticized for being too technical (mathematical/abstract/etc.) and not applicable to "real life," I believe it offers many contributions that can help in thinking about certain situations. For example, what about open source? Drawing on earlier philosophical discussions, Game Theory has the notion of a Stag Hunt.

Essentially, a Stag Hunt represents a situation in which collaboration, though tricky, produces a higher benefit to all involved rather than individual action. The challenge is that the benefit from collaboration requires more work and risk to attain the higher benefit, while the lesser benefit from individual action is much more certain. There are some dramatic, real world cases where the difference has a great impact (examples in later posts).

As I work with the Eclipse community on behalf of DTP, I often encounter Stag Hunts. Whether it is collaboration between projects, or collaboration with the eclipse community at large, it is not uncommon to indentify areas in which everyone agrees that more benefit would come from working together, but other factors (such as migration, time line, and so on) scuttle the effort. Part of the challenge of moving DTP forward for the benefit of Eclipse as a whole is to overcome these concerns and achieve broader and deeper collaborative efforts.

OK, so perhaps it is interesting that some aspects of life at Eclipse can be seen through the lense of Game Theory's Stag Hunt. Apart from "cool trivia" factor, what does this observation provide? Well, the Stag Hunt is just a prototype for many situations that occur, and Game Theory gives us an analytical tool for understanding it. Also by making this linkage, we can use the accumulated experience about what works and doesn't work in these sorts of situations. So, the Stag Hunt serves both as a tool for analysis and common term for linking a substantial amount of collective human understanding, which can then be brought to bear on specific challenges in DTP.


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