29 January, 2010

On Being Free

As I promised on an obscure mailinglist where the evil plans for KDE World Domination are being developed (and consequently rejected), I'd like to solicit some opinions in this blog about Freedom.

I'm not talking about the free-as-in-beer nor the free-as-in-speech, but the relative independence the KDE community enjoys from the influence of one or a few large corporations. Most of you probably realize that it's a rare property for a community of our size - pretty much all other communities with over a 100 developers (KDE has about 2400 active developers!) are basically run by anything from one up to 3-4 large companies with little or no volunteer input. At a recent meeting Frank, Jeff and myself had with a major manufacturer of mobile chipsets it became abundantly clear that the independence the KDE community enjoys is seen as a big plus by companies who might want to work with us.

Of course, talking with volunteers you are not seldomly reminded how they prefer their freedom. While support from a big company is nice, for many the decision making power has to be with the community, even for those employed by companies. Some say it's because it results in better decisions, others argue it is simply more satisfying to be in control. Whatever the reasons, it matters to us.

Now the KDE community certainly DOES work with big companies, and not just a few. I am compiling a list of companies active in our ecosystem, and it is impressive. Of course some are more involved than others. Some work closely with a sub community, providing incentives for specific features, like XXXX does within the Amarok community. Others have so many developers working on a specific piece of technology they almost run the whole thing, like is the case with KDAB and KDE PIM. Of course, especially in the latter case, the question might come up: to what extend is this community still independent? The answer might be a difficult one, however just asking around gives you a decent idea. The companies around KDE PIM (yes, not just one) put serious thought and effort in keeping the community in control, working with and not behind or over them, supporting and attending meetings and sponsoring several developers.

So despite the corporate input we receive, we still are largely independent and in control, and we'd like to keep it that way. Basically, that gives us two ways forward:
- don't work with commercial parties anymore than we already do, and maybe even tone it down here and there. Effecively keeping our community as it is - volunteer based. Of course organical growth is possible, esp considering that we grow by about 300 (mostly volunteer) developers per year...
- figure out what exactly it is which keeps us independent and keep an eye on those factors while proceeding to work with (more) commercial parties.

In my opinion, the community needs to think and decide how comfortable and happy they are with working with (more) companies in the first place. It might surprise you but there are people with vastly different ideas about this than you might have. We need to get those opinions on the table, and decide, as a community (or as sub communities!) where to go from here.

To help with that, I'd like to make the second option a real posibility: proceeding with increasing corporate collaboration to grow and improve our products while staying independent in terms of decision making. For that we need to figure out 'what keeps us sane', about which I'll be writing my next blog. For now, any input, ideas and discussion are welcome!