More Than One Way to Measure Usefulness


In a recent post, IT Business Edge's Ann All surmised that former Google employee Sergey Solyanik probably didn't make many friends among the open source faithful when he said:

I need to know that the code is useful for others, and the only way to measure the usefulness is by the amount of money that the people are willing to part with to have access to my work.

It's a single-minded approach to determining whether what he does matters, but to his credit, Solyanik knows himself. The very next sentence in his blog post reads, "Sorry open source fanatics, your world is not for me!" Solyanik is entitled to his opinion, and no one at IT Business Edge is going to begrudge him that. Neither are most other people outside this organization. One person from whom I had asked for a reaction said simply, "To each his own."


But in the time that I've been covering open source software, I have learned that there is more than one way of measuring a program's value. It depends on whom you ask.


In fact, it's funny this should come up now. Last week when I was putting together our "Leveraging Open Source" newsletter, in which we featured my response to a reader comment that "open source is trash" and that open source developers need jobs, the subject line I chose was "There Is Value in Open Source." The whole point was that open source developers do have jobs. They get paid to do what they do. So in one sense, the usefulness of their code to their employers is measured by how much they are paid.


Secondly, I would argue that the value and usefulness of open source code can be measured by the number of users who download it. It's true that not every person who downloads a piece of software ends up using it (neither does every person who purchases software, let's remember), but the download numbers are a place to start. And if you add to that the revenue that support subscriptions for those programs bring to the companies that offer enterprise support, that's another measure of usefulness. If a company doesn't find a program useful, it's not going to care whether it's supported, let alone pay for that support.


Finally, I will defer to Linux Foundation VP Amanda McPherson, who responded to my inquiry regarding Solyanik's comment via e-mail. She said, in part:

The open source developers I know are also motivated by users and the usefulness of their work. They don't just use money as the only indicator of their worth, especially since the money earned for software in this example is earned more from monopoly advantage than superior technology or true customer choice. If you're a developer, how much more satisfying is it to know someone chose your software because they liked it and not only because it came bundled with their PC?

Solyanik has one way of looking at it. Most open source developers have another.