Let’s end all Free Software “projects” quickly!

A “project” is always temporary, in the narrow sense of the term. Some Free Software people use “project” to refer to long lasting initiatives instead. By adopting the more widespread use of the term, Free Software initiatives enhance their ability to reflect upon themselves and to communicate better towards others. Making a distinction between an initiative, projects and products enables a group to speak more clearly about their individual interests and how it leads to successful cooperation. Let us end the misleading use of “project” and get into concluding more Free Software project faster!

When IT people hear about a “project” the majority will understand “A temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product or service”[1]. In other words: A project is only done once, has limited resources and will end sooner or later.

When Karl Fogel writes about “How to Run a Successful Free Software Project”, it is about how to organize a healthy community around creating a specific Free Software product. Fogel’s book is a helpful resource, and a good example why an improvement in the Free Software community is needed.

It matters because this incompatible use of “project” jams understanding of what Free Software is about. For example the vast majority of trained IT people will get the wrong idea.

Look at this from a Free Software angle: Personally I have ended numerous Free Software projects! Each one of them had goals, associated resources and constraints. They were ended, most of them being successful. Maybe a project stretched the time-frame or the resources, was being extended or delayed.
But in the end they are done, gone, over. And this is really good! If a project is concluded, I hold its results in my hand. When it went well I have achieved my aims and some more. The faster a project ends successfully, the better.

Now compare this to a software component that is developed in the open and published under a Free Software license. Who makes it? How is it developed? Do I want to end this process as fast as I can? No, of course not! Fresh ideas come in, new defects or challenges come up and different people appear. They form a collaborating community within individuals have their own interests, while contributing to a common vision. The finest communities produce, design and maintain world class Free Software products – as an ongoing activity. Ideally a community lives for decades and ever after. As long there are active people, there are resources. As long as there is still a feature to add or a new platform or better tool to port to, there are new goals. It just feels wrong to call such long-living initiatives “projects”!

A few Free Software people tend to use this term for their initiative and if I want to talk to them about a project, there is an understanding gap to bridge. And when thinking about single individuals and companies and how their agendas relate to your community, it is getting in the way that there is no better distinction.

It helped me to get a clearer view by speaking of an “initiative” in case of an ongoing, possibly never-ending activity that produces and promotes Free Software products. “Initiative” points to the people that are contributing to a common vision. I contrast this to “community”, where I include a larger group of stakeholders. Regular and conscious users are community to me. Because being less active than a contributor I do not consider them part of the initiative. Each product has its own community, maybe even several ones like a users-, a translators-, a modelers- or a developers-(sub)community. So what does an initiative do? Often it will produce a software product. Sometimes its activities will bear documents or other results. In any case it can be called “result”, “product” or just by its name. For example when you have “abc-2.11.tar.xz”, it can be called “Abc” or “Product Abc”.

When new users climb up the participant pyramid[2] of my initiative, they will think of: How can I help best? What are the goals? If they know that the initiative is long running and does releases, they can at once help to plan the next one. Their expectations will align faster with others, which is important to keep contributors motivated.

The KDE re-branding effort was born out of similar thoughts. As I would say: KDE is the initiative, and KDE Platform and Plasma are some of their products. KDE will be able to explain themselves and their products better to a wider audience. This is very good for new applications based on the KDE Platform, often done by a KDE group, but able to run without Plasma, the KDE Desktop. I believe in this re-branding, because it supports illustrating that KDE products fly well beyond the old operating system borders.

Try it! Rethink your actions when contributing to Free Software (products). Often you will be contributing to a lasting initiative not a (limited) project. Free Software is here to stay, prepare your mind for this situation. ;)

  1. ↑This is the definition of the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).The UK Association of Project Management’s is similar: “A unique, transient endeavour undertaken to achieve a desired outcome.” from www.apm.org.uk/content/project,retrieved 2011-09-22Essentially the same as the understanding of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) as given in the system development model V-Model XT: “a singular entirety of coordinated activities with specific starting and end points that are carried out by a person or organization with the aim to achieve specific targets with regard to schedule, cost and performance.”section 8.3 Glossary, Entry “Project” of the V-Modell XT 1.3 EN, retrieved 2012-01-19
  2. Participates Pyramid from section 4.1 of Sustainable Free Software: From project to permanent activity, using the example Gpg4win