A Systemic Perspective on the Structure of Business
When we talk about ecosystems in open source, we mean the context in which a product or project lives. I think ecosystem is a term worth explaining. I have recently come to understand that when we use the term ecosystem in relation to the earth many people are inclined to think of food chains. While food chains are very much a part of ecosystems; the term ecosystem as it applies our home here on earth addresses much more and includes both organic and inorganic components.
Similarly in open source, the term ecosystem is often mistaken for community. Community is only a component of open source ecosystems. The open source ecosystem is a network which contains components such as IP, Community Tools, Innovators and contributors, Licenses, Services, Partners, Forge projects and so on. The project ecosystem or network contains yet smaller networks, and is itself a component of a much larger network which is the greater open source community, the software industry, the economy and so on. It turns out the ecosystem concept is essential to understanding the phenomena of open source particularly as it applies to commercialization.
So called 'closed source' vendors also have ecosystems around their products. One might observe that the components or nodes of the 'closed source' system are almost identical to those of an open source ecosystem. Indeed the distinguishing difference is not in the parts but in the relationships between the parts. Many are not able to point to the factors that make open source the benficial model that it is. We are tempted to say it is the source code, the community, the often support only business model. The fact is that this cannot be. All of these things exist in variation and by degree in traditional models. Source code can be made available with the acceptance of an NDA, communities have been in existance since the down on online commuting. Oracle and Microsoft are strongholds of the traditional model yet both organizations release source and have some of the strongest communities in existance. It is not the parts that give rise to the desirable and sustainable nature of open source it is the relationships between the parts. We say that these characteristics or properties emerge from the system. They are not properties of any of the nodes in isolation -- they are derived in the relationship between the parts. Thus, we can say 'The whole [system] is greater than the sum of its parts.'
To look at these two similar but very different organizations from a holistic / systemic (so called ecological) perspective is to reveal several critical reasons that contribute to the conclusion that the closed source approach to software has ultimately been a failure as seen in the last few decades, and conversely to reveal why open source offers an approach which shows much stronger characteristics of survivability. By failure I do not mean that these companies have not been profitable. I do not even mean that all customers are unsatisfied. I mean failure in the sense that the system by which many closed source organizations operate is not sustainable over long periods of time. As time and product progress these companies find it harder to adapt, compete, and satisfy customers.
Network Relationships and Feedback Loops
Equilibrium and Sustainability Far From Equilibrium
Closed Source Approach: Unsustainable
Open Source: Exhibiting the Characteristics of Living Systems