Open-sourcing may just be worth the risk

feature-konquer-200Everyone wants a little something for free. But giving other people access to a piece of your business could open you up to all sorts of criticism. Is open-sourcing worth it?

Earlier this year, my Vancouver-based company, Mobify, decided to open-source a key piece of our technology platform. We open sourced Mobify.js, our core framework that enables Web developers and designers to create mobile-friendly versions of their websites. ”Open sourcing’’ refers to the process of making a particular piece of software’s source code available to the public, so that anybody can recreate or modify it. Mozilla’s popular web browser, Firefox, the image format PNG and Apache, the world’s most popular Web server, are all examples of open-source technology in common use.

Other companies have discovered that open-sourcing is a path to success. Last October, Adobe purchased Nitobi Software after the latter company open sourced its flagship product, PhoneGap, in 2010. ”You can’t do it soon enough,” Nitobi’s co-founder, Andre Charland, said via email. ”You’ll be blown away by how much better your code gets and how much more quickly you can reach a broader audience.”

Our own decision wasn’t easy. Before open-sourcing Mobify.js, we had many concerns. If people could get the framework for free, would they still need our platform to run it? What if someone else used it to compete with us? What if someone used it for malicious purposes? How will the decision impact our revenue? What if everyone thinks our code is lousy, and nobody likes us?

Going open source takes humility and bravery. The process can occasionally be humiliating. When you open the proverbial hood of your company and let your customers poke around the engine, they’ll inevitably find problems you didn’t know existed.

You need to prepare your team for this eventuality and teach it to receive public feedback with grace. But before you dive in, you also need to know why you’re choosing the open-source path and what you want to get out of it.

Chief among Mobify’s motivations was improving the quality of our product. Successful open-source projects are rigorously reviewed and improved upon by thousands of community members. We have about 25 software developers and quality assurance professionals – this is no match for all the software developers in the world who might make use of our platform. Each one is a potential collaborator.

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