The elephant and the blind men - Deciphering the Free/Libre/Open Source puzzle
First Monday

The Elephant and The Blind Men- Deciphering the Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) Puzzle by Sandeep Krishnamurthy

The following commentary is part of First Monday's Special Issue #2: Open Source.


Discussion of Important First Monday Contributions
Reflections of Open Source Scholars
Vectors for Future Research
Final Word





Research in the Free/Libre/Open Source (FLOSS) arena is inter-disciplinary and varied. At this point, we already have several years of research in this area with many important intellectual contributions (see for a list of papers and active scholars). Many of those contributions have appeared in First Monday and hence, this special issue is a celebration of these contributions and their impact on academia and practice.


Discussion of Important First Monday Contributions

For this special issue, I have identified a few important FLOSS contributions made in First Monday. The papers chosen here have had an important and lasting impact on scholarly inquiry.

The first important intellectual contributions in this area were that of Eric Raymond whose famous papers include " The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and "Homesteading the Noosphere". Raymond's ethnographic observations of the open-source movement have influenced how scholars regard open source and have shaped the entire community. Even though Raymond has his detractors (See- "A Second Look at the Cathedral and the Bazaar" by Eric Bezroukov, for instance) and many scholars now consider his views utopian (e.g. Yuwei Lin, this issue, Benjamin Mako Hill, this issue), his work has spawned a whole area of academic research. First Monday's Rishab Ghosh also wrote the classic, "Cooking Pot Markets: An Economic Model for the Trade in Free Goods and Services on the Internet", which models open source software innovation as a system where volunteers make diverse contributions leading to a meaningful outcome.

At this point, academic researchers continue to be obsessed with the idea of motivation. The simple question- “So, why do they do it?”- has led to many papers. In this special issue, I include an interview of one of the pioneers of open source software- Linus Torvalds. This interview was conducted by First Monday's Rishabh Ghosh and focuses quite extensively on Torvalds' motivation. Revisiting this interview should be a fruitful excercise for those interested in the field. While the preponderance of the work has focused on motivation of developers, Boncarossi and Rossi's paper, Altruistic Individuals, Selfish Firms? The Structure of Motivation in Open Source Software, compares the motivations of firms with that of developers. Their argument is that firms are profit-oriented and may be free-riding on the altruism of motivated open source developers.

The large majority of studies in open source have examined large projects- i.e., those that have more than 5 developers. My paper, “Cave or Community: An Empirical Examination of 100 Mature Open Source Projects”, was very influential in the community- see the Slashdot thread on it, for instance. In this paper, I showed, for the first time, that even mature projects (a small subset of Sourceforge projects) are made up of very few developers- the modal number was one. While this paper receives a lot of attention, we have still not looked at what motivates developers to organize in caves and how developers in such projects are different from those in larger projects. Crowston and Howison’s paper, “The Social Structure of Free and Open Source Software Development”, is a fascinating analysis of the social organization of open source teams. They find a wide variety of organizational structures- ranging from the highly centralized to the highly decentralized. As scholars, we have a tendency to quickly latch on to “either-or” categorizations. These two papers point out the fact that open source is about plurality in all senses of the word- social organization is just one of the dimensions along which we observe diversity.

As the shining light of the open source movement, it is no wonder that Linux has attracted a lot of scholarly attention. I present four papers here- Moon and Sproull’s “Essence of Distributed Work: The Case of the Linux Kernel”, Tuomi’s “Evolution of the Linux Credits file: Methodological challenges and reference data for Open Source research”, Dafermos’ “Management and Virtual Decentralised Networks: The Linux Project” and Kuwabara’s “Linux: A Bazaar at the Edge of Chaos”. All four papers present different types of analysis on Linux. Moon and Sproull provide an overview of Linux and what it represents. Tuomi’s paper is unique in that it points out the methodological challenges in using the Linux credits file- a fairly common practice (e.g. Moon and Sproull use the credit file to make a point about asymmetric contributions). Dafermos uses Linux as a case study to talk about how a virtual organization can be successful. Kuwabara’s work is extensive and includes the results of interviews with open source developers.

I end this section by including three papers critical of open source- Levesque’s “Fundamental Issues with Open Source Software Development”, Lancashire’s “The Fading Altruism of Open Source Development” and Nichols and Twidale’s “The Usability of Open Source Software”. Levesque’s paper lists out five problems with open source software development- poor user interface design, documentation, feature–centric development, programming for the self(i.e., the “itch” argument) and religious blindness. Nichols and Twidale’s paper is a focused discussion of how to improve an oft-cited problem with open source software- usability.


Reflections of Open Source Scholars

I have also been able to convince many leading scholars to contribute their reflections to this special issue. In brief, the contributions, in alphabetical order, are-

  1. Kevin Crowston describes new lines of inquiry from the perspective of the social organization of projects.
  2. Stefan Koch and Jesus Gonzalez-Barahona provide the software engineering perspective.
  3. Yuwei Lin reflects on the sociology of open source software.
  4. Benjamin Mako Hill provides a historic perspective of the open source movement and where it is going.
  5. David McGowan provides an engaging paper written from a legal perspective.
  6. Bruce Perens provides his reflections from an economic perspective.
  7. Ilka Tuomi reflects on open source software from an intellectual property perspective.


Vectors for Future Research

Yet, there are many unresolved issues that need work. I describe these unresolved areas in four categories- Motivation of Developers, Group Structure, License Choice and Motivation of Corporations.

Motivation of Developers
As described earlier, the motivation of developers has been an enduring topic of research (Lakhani and Wolf 2005, Lakhani and Von Hippel 2003 and Lerner and Tirole 2004). The conventional wisdom at this point regards each developer as having two components- intrinsic (e.g. fun, flow) and extrinsic (e.g. building a portfolio to maximize future rewards, direct incentives). I have argued elsewhere that, rather than fragmenting along these two lines, the community must explore interesting inter-relationships between these two motivational components (Krishnamurthy, 2005a). The impact of financial incentives, nature of task, group size and group structure on developer motivation need to be further investigated (Krishnamurthy, 2005a). Financial mechanisms that provide direct financial incentives have been under-investigated so far with a few rare exceptions - e.g. see our work on bounties (Krishnamurthy and Tripathi, 2005). Moreover, as pointed out in Lerner and Tirole (2004), past survey research does not help us resolve the matter of motivation. What is needed here is more survey research that will help us understand the different components of motivation and their inter-relationship.

Group Structure
Despite strong evidence that the vast majority of open source projects are 1-person teams or “caves” (Krishnamurthy 2002), studies on developer motivation have systematically excluded these teams (notably, Lakhani and Wolf 2005). Future research must study the motivation of developers to organize in this way.

There is also considerable research needed in understanding how open source projects organize (Yuwei Lin, this issue, Kevin Crowston, this issue). For instance, in Krishnamurthy (2005b), I discuss the concept of “ closed-door” open source projects. Closed-door (but open-source) projects allow anybody to examine the code. However, in such projects, potential participants are intentionally kept out with what amounts to a “developers need not apply” sign. I provide five explanations for this in Krishnamurthy (2005b). These explanations need to be empirically examined in future research.

License Choice
Despite the fact that there is considerable heterogenity in license choices by projects, we know very little about the process developers go through in choosing licenses- Lerner and Tirole (2005) is a prominent exception and their paper is an analysis of project characteristics- rather than attitudinal variables. For instances, many projects now use dual licensing and we do not know why. With frequent discussions about the limitations of GPL and the rise of new types of licenses, we need more discussion about how developers choose a license and how that impacts their project.

Motivation of Corporations
Despite a few exceptions (e.g. Bonaccorsi and Rossi 2004, Krishnamurthy, 2005c), we do not know much about the motivations of corporations. Moreover, initial studies have looked at suppliers of open source software only (e.g. Bonaccorsi and Rossi 2004). We need a rich and multi-disciplinary, multi-method approach to understanding the motivations of corporations.


Final Word

As a scholar who studies open source software, it is clear to me that open source represents something new. There are many interesting and rich lines of scholarly inquiry in the open source space. I would like to use this opportunity to those who have contributed so far to the literature and would invite new scholars to join this research community.End of article


About the Author

Sandeep Krishnamurthy is Associate Professor of E-Commerce and Marketing at the University of Washington, Bothell. Today, he is interested in studying the impact of the Internet on businesses, communities and individuals. He is the author of a successful MBA E-Commerce textbook- "E-Commerce Management: Text and Cases" and has recently edited two books, "Contemporary Research in E-Marketing: Volumes I, II". His academic research has been published in journals such as Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes(OBHDP), Marketing Letters, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Quarterly Journal of E-Commerce, Marketing Management, Information Research, Knowledge, Technology & Policy, First Monday and Business Horizons. He is the Associate Book Review Editor of the Journal of Marketing Research and a co-editor for a Special Issue of the International Marketing Review on E-Marketing. He is an honorary member of a SIG of Mensa. His writings in the business press have appeared on, and Sandeep was recently featured on several major media outlets (TV- MSNBC, CNN, KING5 News; Radio- KOMO 1000, Associated Press Radio Network; Print- Seattle Post Intelligencer, The Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Washington's The Daily; Web-, recently for pointing out the flaws in Microsoft Word's Grammar Check. His comments have been featured in press articles in outlets such as Marketing Computers, Direct Magazine,,, Oracle's Profit Magazine and The Washington Post. Sandeep also works in the areas of generic advertising and non-profit marketing. You can access his web site at- and his blog at-



Bonaccorsi, Andrea and Cristina Rossi (2004), “Altruistic individuals, selfish firms? The structure of motivation in Open Source software”, First Monday, volume 9, number 1 (January 2004), URL:

Krishnamurthy, Sandeep (2005a), “On the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation of Open Source Developers”, Forthcoming in Knowledge, Technology & Policy.

Krishnamurthy, Sandeep (2005b), “About Closed-door Free/Libre/Open Source (FLOSS) Projects: Lessons from the Mozilla Firefox Developer Recruitment Approach”, Upgrade, Volume 6, Issue 3, Available at-

Krishnamurthy, Sandeep (2005c), “An Analysis of Open Source Business Models”, Making Sense of the Bazaar: Perspectives on Open Source and Free Software, Editors- Joseph Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott Hissam and Karim Lakhani, MIT Press, Boston, MA.

Krishnamurthy, Sandeep and Arvind Tripathi (2005), “Bounty Programs in Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS): An Economic Analysis”, Forthcoming in The Economics of Open Source Software Development, Editors- Jurgen Bitzer and Phillip Schroeder, Elsevier Publications.

Krishnamurthy, Sandeep (2002), “Cave or Community?: An Empirical Examination of 100 Mature Open Source Projects”, First Monday, 7(6), Available at-

Lakhani, Karim and Eric von Hippel (2003), “How Open Source Software Works: “Free” User-To-User Assistance”, Research Policy, 32, 923–943.

Lakhani, Karim and Robert Wolf (2005), “Why Hackers Do What They Do: Understanding Motivation and Effort in Free/Open Source Software Projects”, In Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, edited by J. Feller, B. Fitzgerald, S. Hissam and K. R. Lakhani. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lerner, Josh and Jean Tirole (2004), “The Economics of Technology Sharing: Open Source and Beyond”, Working Paper, Available at-

Lerner, Josh and Jean Tirole (2005), “The Scope of Open Source Licensing”, Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, 21 (April 2005) 20-56.

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The elephant and the blind men - Deciphering the Free/Libre/Open Source puzzle by Sandeep Krishnamurthy
First Monday, Special Issue #2: Open Source — 3 October 2005

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