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Article from Issue 203/2017

"Inner Source" is great in principle, but struggles without the supporting ethical structure of software freedom.


The Inner Source Skeptic

If you work in software development, you may be hearing about "Inner Source Software." Inner source is a software development methodology that takes the practices of open source software development, but uses them within a corporation rather than out in the open. The current cheerleaders are developers at PayPal – search for "InnerSource Commons" to read more. But the idea of leaving behind the ethical imperatives of software freedom and abstracting a methodology from open source has been around from the beginning of the open source movement in 1998. It even spawned a company, CollabNet, that sought to monetize the concept by providing tools and consulting services to internal development groups at big corporations.

Those early advocates of inner source discovered the methodology was indeed transformative, but only within the context of a corporation ripe for transformation. Getting developers to collaborate over similar code across an otherwise hierarchical management structure challenged the status quo and brought improvement and innovation. But early successes often surrendered to business secrecy, and the resulting compromise – agile but managed – rarely led to a true opening up and discovery of transformed business practices. What was missing was software freedom.

Taking the software freedom out of open source and free software leads to behavior that is the software development equivalent of a cargo cult. As Wikipedia explains, "The term cargo cult [...] originally referred to aboriginal religions that grew up in the South Pacific after World War II. The practices of these groups centered on building elaborate mock-ups of airplanes and military landing strips in the hope of summoning the god-like airplanes that had brought marvelous cargo during the war."


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