If there's one thing commenters on a recent Slashdot post could agree on, it's that it is difficult to come to any agreement on a standard metric of success for open-source projects.
Despite a contentious and occasionally combative exchange, however, the question - "What defines success in an open source project?" -- did provoke thoughtful commentary.
One idea that is echoed in several responses focuses on open-source's rivalry with its commercial equivalents. User crazyjj says that an open-source project has "arrived" when it begins to be compared with proprietary competitors by well-respected authorities. Another response, from crhylove, says that functional superiority to commercial products is required.
Others are a bit more tongue-in-cheek, like the anonymous commenter who remarks "your project is a success when a corporation embeds it in their product and violates the GPL." Another, posting under the handle DieByWire, says "you know you've arrived when you've been sued for patent infringement."
That said, a diametric school of thought argues that success for an open-source project shouldn't be judged differently than it is for non-open-source products. This means that the answer, according to commenter AdrianKemp, is "the exact same thing that defines success in non-open source software: It does what you wanted. Doesn't matter whether it's a log rotation script, a web app, a POS system or firmware for electronics on the next spaceship. Software success is determined by only one metric. Open source doesn't enter into it."
Moreover, many others take issue with the question itself, saying that the definition of success could vary so widely among different projects that it is impossible to generalize. User Gaygirlie argues against raw usage data as a yardstick, saying "an open-source project can be [a] success even if it has NO users whatsoever outside the developers, and equally well it can be a failure even if it had 200,000 users."
While the lack of a consensus on this issue was characteristic for the open-source community, so too was the profusion of thought-provoking ideas. With the recent news that the open-source world has its first billion-dollar enterprise player in the form of Red Hat, the importance of issues like the one raised by Slashdot's post could grow in the future.
Email Jon Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.
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