Co-Founder and Primary Developer, Openprivacy
Kevin Burton has a warning for developers everywhere: Open source programming can suck you in.
“It first starts off when youre using a product. Youre using it to get work done,” he said.
“Then you see a bug so you fix it. Then you start learning the code inside and out to get more done. Then you want 2.0 or 3.0 to ship, and its not moving fast enough. So you step in and get the job done.”
Burtons journey into open source development began several years ago, when he was maintaining servers for one of the large Internet service providers. The customer wanted to use Microsofts Web servers. In fact, it insisted upon it. But the machines kept crashing and Burton had to keep them running.
After some tough negotiations, Microsoft decided to let Burton and his compatriots look at the source code to the Internet Information Server, Microsofts Web server that runs on Windows NT platforms. It made their life a bit easier and they even snagged some of the bugs, but that didnt fix things.
“We were even giving patches back to [Microsoft], but they would drop them. They didnt have any way of accepting patches. There was no review process. They just hired a bunch of engineers,” he said.
Just giving someone a copy of the source code isnt enough. Open source, to Burton, is a process of sharing the source code with users in order to make them full partners. The open source projects he works on come with well-developed tools for knitting the community together and coordinating its moves. This infrastructure pays off.
“Once a project gets moving, the development is at least eight times faster than a closed source project,” he said.
Currently, Burton is a primary developer at OpenPrivacy, a project with the goal of creating a distributed, wide-open reputation management service.
“You can post anonymously, but if what you say becomes a jewel — if people decide its really genius — in the future you can prove youre the person who said that. You get the benefits of privacy and anonymity,” he said.
Whos paying for this? Burton is living off the savings he accumulated while working on Jetspeed — another open source project for building Web portals. During that time, a large wireless company paid him to add the features that it would need to Jetspeed so wireless users could see the same content as PC users with a regular browser. Companies often fund open source development, he explained, when it helps them sell other products.
OpenPrivacy is currently just a nonprofit in research and development mode, but Burton is looking to form another company that would build similar partnerships.
“There are a lot of things that companies can provide,” he said, hinting that his current project would be a perfect one to fund.