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Beyond Development: A Research Agenda for Investigating Open Source Software User Communities

Beyond Development: A Research Agenda for Investigating Open Source Software User Communities
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Author(s): Leigh Jin (San Francisco State University, USA), Daniel Robey (Georgia State University, USA) and Marie-Claude Boudreau (University of Georgia, USA)
Copyright: 2005
Pages: 4
Source title: Managing Modern Organizations Through Information Technology
Source Editor(s): Mehdi Khosrow-Pour (Information Resources Management Association, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-822-2.ch157

Abstract

In the last few years, the open source software (OSS) development movement has captured the attention of both information systems practitioners and researchers. In contrast to proprietary software, OSS is usually developed through public collaboration and its source code is made freely available. In the last five years, OSS development has become a viable alternative to commercial software (Chengalur-Smith and Sidorova, 2003), attracting intense practitioner interest. As a new approach to the production of software, OSS has already begun to revolutionize the software industry as a whole, drastically changing the way software code is produced. Beyond the software industry, OSS has attracted interest for its application of community principles of governance over commercial activities (Markus et al., 2000; von Hippel and von Krogh, 2003). Indeed, by describing OSS development as a “movement,” we reflect the broader excitement about the implications of community governance processes in a knowledge economy (Adler, 2001). Open source has rapidly become a popular area of study within the information systems (IS) research community, as evidenced by the appearance of special tracks for OSS within conferences and special issues of journals. The vast majority of the research conducted so far has focused on the phenomenon of OSS development (Fitzgerald and Kenny, 2003). The interest in OSS development reflects a desire to explain the counterintuitive practice of treating commercially valuable products as public goods rather than proprietary products for sale. Likewise, the development and maintenance of complex software products by communities of expert volunteers has piqued interest into the incentives for developers. As a consequence of the primary focus on OSS development, little research has yet been conducted on OSS use. The neglect of OSS use may be attributed to two assumptions about OSS projects. First, it is known that people often become OSS developers because they intend to use the product being developed. To echo Raymond’s (2001) frequently quoted expression, OSS developers are users with an “itch to scratch,” so they are willing to devote time and expertise to develop software solutions to their own problems as users. Thus, if it is assumed that all OSS developers are users, making a distinction between developers and users becomes unnecessary (Feller and Fitzgerald, 2000). In other words, if OSS use is assumed as the primary motivation for OSS development, research on OSS use is redundant with research on OSS development. This assumption can be challenged by statistics showing the rapid rise in the number of users, the vast majority of whom have no interest or capability to contribute to modifications of the source code (Fitzgerald and Kenny, 2003). For widely distributed OSS such as Linux, it makes no sense to assume that all users could possibly be developers (von Hippel and von Krogh, 2003). Rather, it is clear that there are proportionately more users than developers. Moreover, as OSS development becomes increasingly targeted toward productivity and entertainment applications, an increasing number of non-experts are becoming OSS users. The second assumption discouraging research on OSS use is that the OSS movement is unique solely because of the way software is being developed, but that its use is similar to any other type of software. Given that an abundance of IS research has focused on the adoption and use of software applications, therefore, it might be assumed that no further investigation is necessary for OSS products. This assumption can be challenged by looking at the differences between OSS and proprietary software. Users of OSS are typically confronted by a fundamentally different type of technical support than in proprietary software. Rather than relying on a vendor’s customer support, users of OSS need to find other sources of help for installing, learning, and using their freely acquired software. Perhaps OSS users receive such help through participation in user groups that are supported by community volunteers, similar to the communities supporting development. Given the paucity of research on OSS use, it is important to keep an open mind regarding OSS use and to formulate a program of research rather than to assume that “use is use.” These arguments justify research into OSS use. In this paper, we adopt a community perspective on OSS use, which is explained in the following section. We then present a framework that includes four main areas of investigation: creation of OSS user communities, their characteristics, their contributions, and how they change. For each element of the framework we pose several research questions.

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