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Beyond crowd-funding

The real significance of Ouya is that it has alerted more people in the hacking world to the possibility of crowd-sourcing – something that hitherto hasn't really been a big part of how projects are funded. That's not to say that crowd-sourcing hasn't been tried before – if you search on both Kickstarter and Indiegogo, there are a surprising number of projects that invoke the idea of "open source", albeit somewhat loosely at times. But it's also striking that many of these appeals fail to meet their targets – probably from lack of awareness about them.

Given that the infrastructure for raising money in this way not only exists, but is relatively mature, what we need now is a more concerted campaign to explore its possibilities in the world of free software. That would mean more projects trying out Kickstarter or Indiegogo, both big and small, from well-known and emerging hackers. Maybe we need a central site that would provide ways for people to find out about new crowd-source appeals. That's in addition to more coverage from existing online and offline titles on what's going on in the field of crowd-sourced coding.

It's worth considering what the benefits of a vibrant crowd-sourcing option could be for open source. The obvious one is that it would allow coders to become independent, and would offer an alternative to finding and joining a company that is aligned with open source goals. It would allow those off-beat, non-commercial projects to be realised – assuming that enough people were interested enough to sponsor them (and that in itself would be a useful function, since it would help programmers decide which projects are likely to become widely used.)

But there's another angle to this. Suppose projects could be defined by people who would like them to happen, and then coders bid to realise them? In particular, companies could commission new applications or modifications to existing programs – something that's relatively hard to organise at the moment.

Those of you with very good memories may recall that this has been tried before, with a startup called SourceXchange. This had impeccable credentials – people on its board included Brian Behlendorf (one of the creators of Apache), the publisher Tim O'Reilly, and Marc Andreessen, known today as a successful venture capitalist, but also one of the initiators of both the Mosaic browser and the Netscape company.

Despite this glittering array of well-connected people – and a generous $35 million round of funding from companies including Dell, HP, Intel, Novell, Oracle and Sun – SourceXchange was a flop. One reason was simply that it was an idea before its time – this was back in 2000. The open source world was much smaller, as was the number of companies using it. This meant the pool of coders and those who might want to commission them was only a fraction of today's numbers. If it were run though existing sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, the idea might well thrive today.

An entire ecosystem could spring up around such commissions – individuals or smaller groups of coders hiring themselves out to meet the needs of businesses or users through customisation of existing software, or the creation of new projects. We might even see new kinds of support companies offering to handle all the tiresome infrastructural stuff – leaving hackers to get on with what they do best – in return for a cut of the coding fee.

These are intriguing possibilities, and would open up new ways for open source projects to be initiated and funded, and for coders to earn a living doing what they love, and without signing up for a conventional job – something that would probably be quite a popular option if it could be made to work. It's certainly worth exploring.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+.

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