Every once in a while I hear it alleged that “open source” is just a marketing device for a practice that would be just as well off without it. This is seriously wrong, but it’s a confusion I’m partly to blame for because I have emphasized the marketing utility of the term in the past.
Yes, the term “open source” is partly a marketing device. I proposed the adoption of the term in 1998 because I felt we needed a term for the practice of the hacker community less ideologically loaded than “free software” in order to sell the idea to the mainstream. It was a pretty successful marketing device; we passed out of early-adopter stage around 2003 five years later, which compares well with 20 years of failure by the FSF to make a similar breakthrough in the public perception of the “free software” brand.
However, “open source” was never just a marketing label. Marketing labels usually only have feel-good emotive content. On rare occasions they may weakly imply a descriptive theory of the merits of the product; consider “workstation”, for example. What marketing labels never contain is a generative theory of how to improve the product — because their purpose is to make you believe it’s already as good as it can get and you should buy, buy, buy, now, now, now.
But the term “open source” does entail an entire generative theory of how to improve the process. If you are calling what you are doing “open source”, you know (for example) that your process will be improved by changes which (a) shorten the feedback loop between software changes and public testing of those changes, (b) reduce the difficulty of making casual contributions, and (c) increase the size and variety of your developer group.
In this respect, “open source” escapes being mere marketese and is like a normal engineering term of art for a methodology; compare, for example, “agile programming” which is also both a marketing term and a methodological one associated with similar process ideas. (The similarity is probably not accidental; several of the founders of the agile movement cheerfully admit to having been influenced by my work.) This is one reason I have always insisted it should not be capitalized: “Open Source” looks like puffery from someone’s ad campaign, but “open source” does not.
As always when the history of this term comes up, I like to give credit where credit is due. I did not invent it. That honor goes to my long-time friend Christine Peterson, futurist and nanotechnology advocate. What I did was (a) attach her term to the generative theory I had developed in 1996-1997 (in The Cathedral and the Bazaar), and (b) successfully persuade most of the rest of the community to use it.
As usual in open source, the most important skill involved was at being egoless enough to recognize someone else’s good idea. Both I and the larger community managed to do that with respect to Chris’s “open source” label, and all have benefitted greatly as a result.