What does it take to get an open-source developer to write a piece of software code or perhaps find and fix bugs in a companys existing code?
A Microsoft Xbox, it appears.
Just ask Stormy Peters, an original founder of Hewlett-Packards Open Source Program Office and currently the director of project management at OpenLogic, which supplies software and services that allow enterprises to create and manage their own integrated, commercial-grade open-source environments.
While Peters believes that almost all open-source developers are still motivated to work on those projects that they believe in and are useful to them, many are also being hired full-time by companies such as IBM and HP, which have an interest in those projects, she told eWEEK.
“As a result, an increasing number of open-source companies, like OpenLogic, are becoming willing to compensate developers for their time, especially if they ask for specific features,” Peters said.
“The original plan was to pay these people in cash. But when I went out and talked to community members, they did not want to be paid. So we came up with a points-based system, where the points awarded could be exchanged for electronics, devices, cash or donated,” she said.
Peters was surprised by the large number of requests from these community members for Microsoft Xboxes. “A lot of them told me they really wanted an Xbox. So we decided that the first 75 people who solved an issue for us would get both an Xbox and points, but they were far more excited about the Xbox than they were about the points,” she said.
After the plan was announced, the company got some pushback from the community for giving away a Microsoft product, but “I just told them that this was what the developers had asked for,” Peter said, noting that while more than 75 people have signed up for the Expert Community, not all of them have solved an issue yet.
OpenLogic only signs up developers who are committed to a project—people who are engaged and active, on the mailing list, and have contributed source code, she said.
When a customer has an issue with the software from one of these projects, Peters asks her pool of experts for that project to work on the issue. If they agree to do so, they are actively monitored so that the customer gets the solution within the guaranteed timeframe.
The company plans to follow this reward-based approach in other areas going forward, and has already started doing so in the area of documentation.
“Good documentation is one of the things that has been notoriously lacking from open source. We went through all the projects for which we are offering services and support, and a lot of them didnt even have a basic description of what the project is that an outsider could understand,” Peters said. “So we have offered those developers points to write this documentation, as they know the project well and are the most appropriate people to do it.”
OpenLogic assumes that the average task will take between 3 and 4 hours, and thus allocates a standard number of points per task. But this is open to appeal if it takes longer, she said.
Another company using incentives such as electronic goods and hard cash to encourage and remunerate developers is open-source wireless e-mail company Funambol.
Funambol has introduced three programs to engage its community, get their mindshare and work more closely with them, and it plans a lot more such initiatives going forward, Hal Steger, Funambols vice president of marketing, told eWEEK.
The first program, bag-a-bug, began some six months ago and was essentially a contest where developers were asked to find and fix bugs in the companys code, for which they would be rewarded with electronics such as iPods and Sony PlayStations.
“About 82 bugs were found, and 49 of them were fixed by the community,” Steger said. “We estimated that saved the company between $200,000 and $300,000 in terms of what it would have cost us to pay developers and others to do that.”
Some 85 percent of the developers who took part in the program were already part of the Funambol community, Steger said, adding that its software has been downloaded more than 700,000 times, with average monthly downloads standing at about 50,000.
There were several hundred active developers contributing code and doing bug fixes, making it “the largest mobile open-source project in the world,” he said.
But to attract and retain open-source developers, the project had to be something that developers found to be cool, novel, fun and easy to work with, Steger said.
Because Funambol was written in Java, took advantage of new technologies and operated in the mobile space, it tended to attract developers and keep them interested, he said.
The company also recently introduced the Code Sniper program, which is essentially a project where developers are asked to write connectors that link the Funambol software to consumer services such as Yahoo, Gmail, Skype and MySpace.
Data like user contacts, e-mail and calendars is then synchronized between those consumer services and a cell phone or device.
“We did not have the internal bandwidth to do this, and no one in the community had offered to undertake it. So we created the Code Sniper program, where we initially offered bounties of between $500 and $2,000 to people in the community to develop these connectors,” Steger said.
“This is just a token amount to show our appreciation and in no way compensates them for the time it takes them to build one of these connectors,” he added.
Funambol has received seven proposals, all of which were put out for the community to review and offer feedback, of which three have been approved: connectors for Yahoo, Gmail and the db4o database.
But the proposal for the Yahoo connector was only received after the company raised the bounty for this from $2,000 to $3,000, Steger said.
These contributions will be licensed under the recently announced Honest Public License, which is identical to the GPL (GNU General Public License) v2 except for an added paragraph designed to “close the ASP loophole and which is found in the draft GPL v3. We are working to get it recognized as a GPL-compatible license,” he said.
The companys Phone Sniper community program, which was introduced in mid-October, asks people who have downloaded the Funambol software to certify that their mobile phone works with that software. They are asked to follow a simple test plan that should only take between 30 and 60 minutes and are then paid $25 for their time and effort.
“In the first day we got 12 responses from people who wanted to do it, and between them they had 36 different phones, all of which have been approved,” Steger said. “Most proprietary e-mail companies only have the resources to test less than 1 percent of the million or so country, phone and software combinations.
“We believe this program will save us a phenomenal amount of money as we are trying to provide push e-mail, contacts and PIM on these commodity mass-market phones,” he said.
“If we had to do this certification and testing work ourselves, it would cost us millions of dollars. We think we can get a pretty high number of combinations tested for an investment of less than $50,000,” he said.
Steger said it is unlikely that programs like these will ultimately spark a bidding war between companies for open-source developer time, since those developers are motivated more by a personal interest in the project and its success than by money.
“Getting the development environment right, and all the learning involved, will pretty much preclude this from happening,” he said.