Everyone wants a little something for free. But allowing others access to a piece of your business could open you up to criticism. Is it worth it?
In early 2012, my company made the decision to open source a key piece of our technology platform. We open sourced Mobify.js, our core framework that enables web developers and designers to create a mobile-friendly version of their website. “Open sourcing” means to make software’s source code publicly available, so that anybody can recreate the software or modify it to make their own version. The popular web browser Mozilla Firefox, the image format PNG, and Apache, the world’s most popular web server, are all examples of open-source technology in common use.
Other company founders have found that open source is a path to business success. Andre Charland’s company, Nitobi Software, was recently purchased by Adobe after open sourcing its flagship product, PhoneGap, in 2010. “You can’t do it soon enough,” Charland said via email. “You’ll be blown away by how much better your code gets and how much more quickly you can reach a broader audience.”
Our decision to go open source wasn’t easy. Prior to deciding to open source Mobify.js, we had many internal discussions about the initiative, including airing concerns. If people could get the framework for free, would they still need our platform to run it? What if someone else used it to compete with us? What if someone used it for malicious purposes? How will the decision impact our revenue? What if everyone thinks our code is lousy, and nobody likes us?
Going open source takes humility and bravery. The process can occasionally be humiliating. When you open the proverbial hood and let your community poke around in the engine, they’re inevitably going to find bugs that you weren’t aware of. It feels a little like your first day of high school.
You need to prepare your team for this eventuality and teach them to receive public feedback with grace. But you also need to know firm reasons why you’re choosing this path and what you want to get out of it before you dive in headfirst.
Chief amongst our motivations was to improve the quality of our product. Successful open-source projects get rigorously reviewed and improved by thousands of community members. We have about 25 software developers and quality assurance professionals at Mobify, but we’re no match for the all the software developers in the world who might make use of our platform. Each of them is a potential tester of or contributor to the project.
These potential contributors aren’t all in Silicon Valley. Open sourcing your work can be an effective way to reach huge global markets, like India, Brazil, and China. I’ve worked with programmers in these markets, and we wanted to help them develop local solutions to local problems. Developers in other parts of the world may not have a culture of paying for software or simply can’t afford it. We also saw an opportunity to recruit developers in these countries to help with the translation of the code base and related documents.
We also considered what going open source would communicate outside the company. Over the years, we’ve used a lot of open-source software solutions in our work. We understand that our work is possible because of the open-source work that precedes it. Open sourcing our own software is one way to acknowledge the debt we owe to the open-source community at large.
Finally, we thought about what it would mean to our own employees. We also had an interest in fostering the right kind of company culture. We value the qualities of openness and transparency, and think they’re instrumental to growing a successful company. We believe every time we push code to the web we make a healthier company. Additionally, programmers tend to be a meritocratic lot, so the idea to “open source it all and let the best software win” appeals to them. We’ve already received new inquiries from skilled people who have kicked the tires on our code and are interested in joining our team.
Going open source can be a scary proposition, but it can also bear fruit. Not only will you discover bugs in your products and services, but you can discover new opportunities of all sorts — new markets, new ideas for products, and new sources of talent.