How Open Source Software Works: 'Free' User-to-User Assistance?

40 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2001  

Eric A. von Hippel

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management

Karim R. Lakhani

Harvard Business School - Technology and Operations Management Group; Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science; Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Date Written: May 2000

Abstract

Open source software products represent the leading edge of innovation development and diffusion systems conducted for and by users themselves - no manufacturer required. Research into this phenomenon has so far focused on how the major tasks of software development are organized and motivated. But a complete user system requires the execution of "mundane but necessary" tasks as well. In this paper, we explore how the mundane but necessary task of field support for open source Apache server software is organized, and how and why users are motivated to participate in providing it. We find that the present system works well and that information providers are largely rewarded by benefits directly received from a related task. We also find, however, that the present help system is by and for only a few - and that changes would be needed if and as volume increases. General lessons for user-based innovation systems includes the clear willingness of users to openly reveal their proprietary information. This bodes well for the efficiency of user-only innovation systems. Open revealing is rational behavior if the information has low competitive value and/or if information providers think that other users know the same thing they do, and would reveal the information if they did not.

Suggested Citation

von Hippel, Eric A. and Lakhani, Karim R., How Open Source Software Works: 'Free' User-to-User Assistance? (May 2000). MIT Sloan Working Paper No. 4117-00. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=290305 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.290305

Eric Von Hippel (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management ( email )

E62-455
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States
617-253-7155 (Phone)
617-253-2660 (Fax)

Karim R. Lakhani

Harvard Business School - Technology and Operations Management Group ( email )

Boston, MA 02163
United States
617-495-6741 (Phone)

Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science ( email )

1737 Cambridge St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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