When two projects decide to merge or not merge…

Posted by Mike on 2011.10.25

Recently the Ascendos reached out to the GoOSe project. It started with a very polite email to the GoOSe mailing list from Andrew Cutler. Shortly afterwards, over the course of a couple weeks, a few people stopped in to #gooseproject and expressed interest in possibly merging the two projects.

The GoOSe project has promised a response and it is the main topic of conversation for this evenings meeting.
Though I think they [Ascendos] may be thinking of the GoOSe project merging into Ascendos and not the other way around.

So the question becomes when do two projects that appear to be very similar merge? What criteria should be considered in the process and when do projects that are similar stand aside?

Warning: I won’t express my opinion on the proposed merger itself in this posting.

Consider the possibilities…

There once was a boy/girl/other project that seemed an awful lot like another boy/girl/other project. They seemed so similar that people sometimes confused the two. And like other couples people began to whisper about the two becoming one. Now if this was a discussion of relationships between two people everyone would agree that it gets more complicated then that. Accordingly when you talk about open and free software projects there are usually several people involved and complexity can grow.

So lets start with the basic question, why merge at all?

  • Merging should create a much cooler and better project!
  • Combining the the resources of both groups and at the same time removing duplicated work.
  • Resources and tasks become consolidated.
  • Eliminate confusion and the “What’s the difference between x, y and z?”.

When projects consider merging they should also consider some of the less pleasant things that might happen. Why shouldn’t projects in merge?

  • When you merge projects some people are going to be lost. There may not be any hard feelings but the project, work flow, objectives, and people involved will shift in such a way that members may no longer want be involved. In some cases this may actually result in a new competing project being started by disaffected members.
  • Loss of diversity. Competing projects help bring out the best for both projects.

So what if two projects have proposed a merger and decide against merging, what will the outcome be?

Only the shadow knows!

Things can change drastically from one project to another in the space of months, weeks or even days. It seems that a lot of projects tend to pick up a competitor and in the end only one survives. Of course to simply say that there is room for only one Linux distribution is silly. Distrowatch tracks hundreds of active distributions. Though there are only a few top projects that get most of the work. As the independent projects progress contributors will almost inevitably decide what project they want to be with. While this doesn’t necessarily doom either one of the projects it certainly can lead to a lopsided effect.

Consider the case of Ubuntu, SUSE and Red Hat. I don’t think anyone would argue that Red Hat has the largest footprint in enterprise and user base. But that doesn’t mean SUSE and Ubuntu are unused or even inconsiderable in their footprint. While Red Hat is bigger it doesn’t mean that there isn’t considerable contributions or even cooperation with the other two.

So projects can survive in a competitive situation and potentially survive very well. On the other end of the spectrum projects that get overshadowed may not have the interest or man power to continue with their project. The Open Source and Free Software landscape is littered with the decays of really cool projects that never gained enough traction to continue.

Sometimes moving forward as an independent project just means putting the merger process off for a while and merging later down the road. Sometimes it means that you try to get a merger only to find that the other party no longer has an interest in a merger but will take new contributions and contributors.

Conclusion?

I don’t have one beyond this: Merging two communities is a tricky business and has long term consequences. It is not a trivial item to undertake.

For the boy/girl/other and boy/girl/other discussed earlier, perhaps it is a good thing to just be friends for the time being. Divorces suck.

- Mike

Websites:

Andrew Cutler posting to goose-linux@googlegroups.com
http://gooseproject.org
http://ascendos.org
http://distrowatch.com

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Speaking at UTOSC 2012 Member of The Internet Defense League