Open Governance Index: opening the discussion

We have been thrilled by the amount of interest around the Open Governance Index (OGI) report which we published just over two weeks ago. Our report was covered in mainstream media across Wired, ZDnet, PCPro, Gizmodo, ARS Technica, BGR, Zeit Online and ReadWrite Mobile.

Our intention was to start a debate around ‘what’ openness is, ‘how’ it can be measured and ‘why’ it is important.  To that extent, we have most definitely got the ball rolling on this topic. We now we need to continue the discussion on governance, to refine our criteria even further and to make the governance measure as meaningful as possible for the open source community.

In this post we want to open the discussion around some of the key findings of our research.

Openness = Open Governance

We believe that openness = open governance. Firstly governance goes beyond licenses. While licenses determine the rights to use, copy and modify, governance determines the right to gain visibility, to influence and to create derivatives of a project, whether in the form of spin-offs, applications or devices.

The governance model used by an open source project encapsulates all the hard questions about a project. Who decides on the project roadmap? How transparent are the decision-making processes? Can anyone follow the discussions and meetings taking place in the community? Can anyone create derivatives based on the project? What compliance requirements are there for creating derivative handsets or applications, and how are these requirements enforced?  Governance determines who has influence and control over the project or platform – beyond what is legally required in the open source license.

In other words, governance determines openness. In today’s world of commercially-led mobile open source projects, it is not enough to understand the open source license used by a project. It is the governance model that makes the difference between an “open” and a “closed” project.

Comparing governance across platforms, tools and consortia 

We chose to analyse a diverse set of projects (from Android to Eclipse projects), pointing to how governance models can apply to all such diverse projects.  To reiterate, we researched eight mobile open source projects: Android, MeeGo, Linux, Qt, WebKit, Mozilla, Eclipse and Symbian. We selected these projects based on breadth of coverage; we picked both successful (Android) and unsuccessful projects (Symbian); both single-sponsor (Qt) and multi-sponsor projects (Eclipse); and both projects based on meritocracy (Linux) and on membership status (Eclipse).

All of these are open source projects, whether platforms (Android, MeeGo, Qt, Symbian) or engines (Linux kernel, WebKit) or multi-project initiatives with a single, uniform governance. We appreciate that these projects are unique in many ways but they are all ultimately open source projects and to that extent our governance measures can be applied to them all equally. For example all of these projects have decision-making groups and processes that are directly comparable. In the Open Governance Index we attempted to document who these decision-makers are, how they operate, what processes are used to determine project decisions and how easily is to influence these project decisions.

Is copyleft more or less open?

In the Open Governance Index report, we awarded a higher score to those licenses that are permissive and not copyleft licenses.  Firstly it should be noted that all the licenses used by the eight mobile open source projects are Open Source Initiative (OSI) approved and meet the Open Source Initiative Definition, which provides for free redistribution of source code, access to source code and ability to create derived works amongst other requirements. We believe that the OSI is the appropriate arbiter of the appropriate Open Source License definition and all of the licenses used by the open source projects researched in this report meet this definition of being ‘open’.

However we also believe that from a commercial viewpoint there is still some concern about using code that is under a copyleft license – our experience of working with mobile software development organisations confirms this.  Our findings suggest that organisations will be more comfortable using permissive licenses which do not mandate copyleft requirements and we reflect this in our criteria and scoring.

Is Android open?

Android is indeed the most successful open source project ever but is also the least open project and so we would have been remiss in our research if we didn’t try to understand why this has occurred.  Our findings suggest that Android would be successful regardless of whether it is an open source project or not, to the extent that the vast majority of developers working on the project (the platform itself) are actually Google employees.

Our findings show that Android is the least open of the open source projects reviewed in this report. In summary, Android scores low with regard to timely access to source code in that the platform does not provide source code to all developers at the same time; it clearly prioritises access to specific developer groups or organisations and has acknowledged this with the delayed release of Honeycomb.  Additionally Android scored low with regard to access to developer support mechanisms, publicly available roadmap, transparent decision-making processes, transparency of code contributions process, accessibility to become a committer (in that external parties cannot ‘commit’ code to the project) and constraints regarding go-to-market channels.

Our full 3-page analysis of the Android governance is part of our full report that can be freely downloaded here.

Evolving the Open Governance Index

Our vision for the Open Governance Index is to for it to be a robust, and as much as is possible, an objective measure of governance for open source projects.  We believe that this is necessary such that users and contributors to open source projects, including commercial entities, understand the means by which they can, or cannot, influence the direction and content of the project.

What are your thoughts on a unified Open Governance Index? Is this achievable with a broader consensus across both industry and open source communities?

  • Andreas / VisionMobile
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