Italian Open Source Researchers: Carlo Daffara

Carlo Daffara is the Italian representative of the European Woking Group on Libre software, he worked in 7 EU research projects related to FLOSS, including one of the largest migration experiment for European Public Administration (COSPA).
I asked Carlo to join the conversation to tell us more about Open Source and Research.

How did you start your activities as ICT researcher within EU funded projects?

My first Commission activity was with the EU WG on Libre Software, where we [Barahona and I] prepared an article on the economic potential of FLOSS. It had quite an impact, and was also used as basis for many legislative actions and other research activities. I then started working in EU research projects related to OSS; the first one was SPIRIT, for open source in health care, where we prepared one of the first European sourceforge clones. Another influential one was COSPA, where we studied the real TCO/ROI of a migration to open source software on the desktop of European Public Administrations.

Few weeks ago I asked Alessandro Rubini his opinion about “the” community, and as you might know he is quite skeptical about.
What is your opinion about “the” community?

Alessandro is right in expressing disbelief in a generic “community”; there are organized communities that can be recognized as such (Debian or Gentoo supporters are among them) but tend to be an exception and not the rule. Most software do not have a real community outside of the developers (and eventually some users) of a single company; it takes a significant effort to create an external support pyramid (core contributors, marginal contributors, lead users) that adds value. If that happens, like in Linux, or the ObjectWeb consortium the external contributions can be of significant value; we observed even in very specialized projects a minimum of 20% of project value from external contributors.

It is worth to notice that both Carlo and I use the “pyramid” expression. While he is more focused on the contribution side, I used the expression to layer the market talking about Funambol business model with its CEO Fabrizio Capobianco. Funambol addresses users’ needs depending on their level up the value chain, where “free” customers are at the bottom of the pyramid and Carriers at the top – ISV, Wireless Manufacturer and Application/Internet Service Providers somewhere in the middle. Please note that now Funambol is available in two editions (used to be three), a sign that they are keeping moving and refining their business model.

You stated that at least 20% of project value come from external contributions, I guess this information come from early FLOSSMetrics results. What about the project?

FLOSSMETRICS is aiming at the creation of a set of tools and a comprehensive database of metrics related to open source projects, in a verified and stable way. It is planned that this will help future research on the software engineering aspects of OSS, and on the interaction of coding, non-code related activities, and social interactions.
Our area of work is related on the sustainability of open source-based business models, extending the work we have done in the past 5 years in SPIRIT, COSPA and other projects. We will leverage the database of code to find how communities can find sustainable development models, how business can cooperate or start an OSS project in a sustainable way.

Talking about business models, you are working from years on taxonomies and categorizations, would you tell us what is an Open Source firm in your opinion?

My opinion is that code licensing cannot be the only important parameter; for example, a company that pays developers, during work hours, to work on open source projects does indeed benefit OSS in general, and should probably be considered as such. In this view, Google can be considered an OSS company even if it does not release much code under OSS licenses.
It is important to consider that while it is understandable that claiming to be OSS when it is not true is negative for the market as a whole, the strong tension that is actually developing while debating OSSness is due to business reasons, as new entrants are trying to find a niche market (in some cases “faking” OSS capabilities) and OSS incumbents that are trying to magnify their “truer” OSSness for signaling reasons.

Here you are bringing some salts to the discussion, I will soon come back on this, may be asking you more on the subject.

Talking about public funded projects, me and not just me have been quite critical of some European funded initiatives. Do you see any problem in this respect?

The problem with some EU projects is that they are not really “open”, in terms of external suggestions, interactions, criticisms and such. Some projects “blended” very well with development communities, like EDOS, by having a dedicated person that interacts with groups, companies and communities in a structured way; I would expect that any “open source” project should have at least this kind of openness.

I totally agree. I think such approach should be used just everytime a significant IT public budget is allocated, it could be a very effective audit. I would also like to see EC evaluators be proficient with Open Source, and I know from my experience that applying is pointless if you are not in their know.

I am not convinced that there is a need for public funded OS projects, nevertheless I am in favour of public funding in presence of a clear market failure. Do you?

The problem is twofold: first of all, it is important to recognize the market failure, and this is not an easy thing to do; the second point is how to organize a project so that it is self-sustaining in the long term despite the market failure. This is in a sense an open research problem (that we hope to address during FLOSSMETRICS).

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts Carlo, you are always welcome!

Carlo Daffara is head of research at a small italian OSS consulting company, he has participated in many other working group of IEEE, Internet Society and the EU ICT task force. He worked in 7 EU research projects related to open source and free software. Carlo has also been the Technical Director of the Italian Open Source Consortium for about three years, and he eventually succeeded to the Presidency when I left last year.

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