after reading the bajillionth talkback, email and blog that arrived in response to my blog's slashdotting today i came to a startling realization:
the vast majority of people out there who use Open Source software don't know how it gets made and what makes it possible to compete in a world of standards and technologies that are a mixed bag of open and not-open.
hacking together a 10k line program to do something specific in your spare time is one thing. creating a desktop platform, a file & print service, a web server and attendant software stack, an operating system or a world-class database is something totally else.
two things (among others, of course) are required to have large scale, complex Open Source software packages that rival or surpasses that of commercial, closed-source equivalents:
1) resources. conferences, standards committee involvement, hardware, bandwidth and even a few salaries here and there are pretty critical to getting large scale Open Source programs off the ground and sustained over the long haul.
look at the recent FireFox funding drive, or how Sun almost exclusively bankrolls Open Office development (Novell's been getting involved lately too) or how MySQL Inc drives MySQL development, or how many of the main Linux kernel developers work during paid hours on it or the size of the yearly budgets for projects like KDE and GNOME. it's undeniable that these things take resources. in fact, most of the projects could do with a lot more resources, but make do with what they have.
these much needed resources come from those who have them, and usually that means companies, governments and to a lesser extent educational and R&D institutions. that means having these people interested, which means offering something they need and/or want in return. that "something" is usually an attractive technology stack with a large user base. and this is not evil or anti-Open-Source-ethic: this is fair trade.
2) developers. developers aren't magic time-traveling elves (though that is one of my favourite sayings these days ;). in fact, developers come almost exclusively from the user base. a small user base means a small developer pool. look around and check out the user base <=> developer ratios in projects. projects with low visibility and small user bases tend to have small numbers of developers relative to the developer pool available in that niche.
now the commonality between the two points above is that for Large Scale Open Source projects to be sustainable (aka "viable") they need a large user base. take away the user base and watch the resources and developers evaporate. without resources and developers watch the development slow down like a mountain stream during an ice age.
that's why i ponder the future of our user base and why i connect that future to the viability of large scale Open Source projects. that's why i grow concerned when i see a way for a vested interest to cut off our air supply (our user base) being handed to them.
this isn't about taking over the world, or the Free Software Fanatics club or any sort of weird incomprehensible agenda. it's simply that i've seen first hand by being involved in the trenches what fuels the KDE's, samba's, Linux and BSD's, Firefoxes, PostgreSQL's and OOo's of the world. take that fuel away and Open Source development will return to what it was in the early 90s: a very cool but pretty much irrelevant topic.
personally, i don't want to see that happen.
p.s. for those who seem to think i'm some sort of Free Software zealot: i get paid to write closed source software. i even own the copyrights to a few pieces of commercial, closed source software that are in production use by clients of mine right now. i'm a pragmatist, which i know is a bit hard to grok in this day and age of popular reactionism.
if i do have any agenda, here it is: i nearly left the computing industry for good in the mid-90s because it became boring and a world of corporate controlled lock in. Open Source made it interesting for me again. i also see great, non-trivial social benefits that can come from Free Software. ergo i want to see it succeed, which means be around in a form that is useful to may day-to-day needs in 20 years.