Wordcamp Seattle 2011: The Beautiful, Ugly World of Open Source

Hagget Hall during Wordcamp Seattle 2011

Seeing actual Automattic employees at Wordcamp Seattle gave the event a different vibe than the ones I had been to before. When you watch Scott Berkun or Andrew Nacin talk about the software and the open source community that created it, you get the feeling that they’re not just making money from this neat little serve-side toy. They are making a TON of money and changing the face of publishing on the web  while they are at it.

Whether I was learning about plug-in development best practices or the trials of the theme marketplace, every presentation I went to stressed the importance of the open source community in moving the industry forward. However, I found the most interesting talks of the day were at the lunch tables. It turns out all is not well in the worker’s paradise of open source.

Automattic is the company that runs the WordPress project. It decides which features are included by default in the next release of WordPress. This could be a bad thing for the community. As Trevor Green from Azure Creative pointed out, while the software is open source, the WordPress brand is not.

For instance, their plug-in called jetpack installs a slew of features that some say could be handled more competently by other plugins. Because Automattic has such a strong hold over the WordPress.com brand, a plugin like jetpack could discourage further development.

I have no delusions that Automattic is secretly planning to turn WordPress into a closed-source gulag. That would be spaying their golden goose. However, their momentum as a corporation and within the community makes it impossible for them to make a move without affecting the software ecosystem. Could the same thing happen to other open source projects, like Ruby on Rails? Rails 3.0 already includes its own test suite by default. Could edge out “competitors” like cucumber or rspec?

It’s fascinating that even in the game of open source, there are still winners and losers. For smaller developers, it’s just another chapter in the constant battle against commoditization and obsolescence. If we want to eat, we’ll just have to move on to some other more open framework.

Much thanks goes to Trevor Green and Torey Azure from Azure Creative, Curtis Mchale from SFN Design, Srinivas Penumaka of ReadyPulse , Christine Rondeau of Bluelime Media, Jacie Landeros, and all the other attendees at WCSEA for providing such scintillating conversation.

3 thoughts on “Wordcamp Seattle 2011: The Beautiful, Ugly World of Open Source

  1. Michael Fields

    “Automattic is the company that runs the WordPress project. It decides which features are included by default in the next release of WordPress.”

    As far as I know, this is a false statement. Automattic does not control WordPress. Decisions are made by a rather large group of individuals based on meritocracy. Please see Jane Wells presentation from WordCamp Seattle for further clarification here. http://wordpress.tv/2010/09/18/jane-wells-how-wordpress-decisions-get-made/

  2. James Post author

    I agree that’s the ideal of the situation, but is it the reality? Even if it’s a meritocracy, Automattic holds a very high place in the heirarchy.

  3. Michael Fields

    I truly believe that it is. To be honest with you, I kinda felt “put in my place” after hearing Jane give this speech in Portland. From my perspective, I have helped out in the forums quite a bit as well as released more than a handful of plugins. It was shocking to see that both of these tasks accumulated the least possible merit in core decision making. Things that ran through my head immediately after the talk were: “I want to make decisions too”, “Why are these things so low?” and “what can I do to ‘climb’ the hierarchy”.

    After some careful thought and reflection on the topic I realized that I probably wasn’t even qualified to be making decisions about core development. While I felt that I knew a lot about WordPress as a whole and am more than capable in many of the technologies that it utilizes. I am really not that familiar with how to make a decision that may affect millions of people. When you really dig deep into what is going on in the core code you start to see how an incorrect decision can really affect 1% of users. With such a large user base, even 1% is a giant number.

    Since then, I have had two patches committed to core and will probably have more in the future. I’ll do what I can to help out. My experience is in extending WordPress for individuals. Core committers are experienced in building core. Does Automattic control what gets added to core? Not in my opinion. I have been reading every patch submitted for a few months now and I have never seen a patch from Automattic. While I realized that a few core committers are employed by Automattic. I see this as a very, very good thing. Automattic runs WordPress.com which is quite possibly the largest installation of the software ever. The experience that these individuals bring to the table is absolutely priceless IMHO.

    If it is true that “Automattic holds a very high place in the heirarchy.” I welcome it! They have built something truely amazing (WordPresss.com) using software that is free for everyone (WordPress.org). I fail to see how such a blessing could ever be misconstrued as a curse.

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