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This discussion took place during the Stack Exchange 1.0 days, when FogCreek sold Stack Exchange licenses for a fee.

It is worth noting that Stack Exchange licenses are still being sold for intranet use.

Important Caveattm: this is something we are merely discussing that may happen more than one year from now, if it happens at all. Bearing that IMPORTANT CAVEAT in mind, please read on.

Joel is convinced that open-sourcing Stack Overflow, in any way, shape, or form, will destroy the business model of StackExchange (pushing prices down to hosting commodity levels) and possibly the Stack Overflow family of sites as well (fragmentation & dissipation of audience via army of clone sites).

  1. Does open sourcing Stack Overflow even make sense at all? What do we (stackoverflow.com llc) get out of it? What does the community get out of it? Is it "win-win"? Or does someone lose?

  2. Are there "hybrid" models of open sourcing that could work? Rather than treating this as an "all or nothing" scenario, is there a way to open source parts of what we're doing, or restrict licensing so that we don't compete with ourselves in the hosted StackExchange part of the business?

  3. Aren't there other companies pursuing open source and hosting businesses at the same time? Such as Six Apart and Movable Type? I'm not sure how applicable this is to hosting business models, but certainly Slashdot and Reddit have gone open source. DotNetNuke also runs a similar business model, apparently.

  4. Won't we be competing with open source versions of ourselves anyway in the long term? There are certainly already open source Stack Overflow clones, and lots of open source FogBugz competition and clones. Over time, won't the competitive pressure increase from the continual improvement of open source copies of what we do? Would it make sense to do it ourselves so we control it?

  5. Could there be "enterprisey" closed source and "public" open source parts of the business? I've always said that StackExchange is going to have to fork because their private small, medium, and large business audience will want very different things than the public internet audience we serve. Wouldn't this be one way to segment the "free as in whatever the heck it is we're calling free these days" open-source dev work from the value-add closed source product?

Thoughts? Feelings? ... ponies?

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Sort of reminds me of KnowledgeTree (knowledgetree.com), which they open sourced the code but kept all the enterprise-y stuff under closed sourced and only available in their commercial editions. Having used their OSS version for close to 3 years and seeing them thriving, probably it's worth looking to see how they had packaged their deals. – Seh Hui Leong Jul 7 '09 at 10:57
Just keep in mind that cloning SO is so easy. Probably a month of work. As we all know, cloning is much easier than building the thing in the first place. – xmm0 Jul 7 '09 at 11:38
i'd say 6-8 weeks... – geocoin Jul 7 '09 at 14:45
@Merdad: There is a clone of the engine underway, as I recall. I believe they've been working on it for over a month (at least) and they are still quite always behind. Fact is, Jeff and Joel have set a standard with these sites. – Frank V Jul 7 '09 at 18:13
Like you mentioned in a blog post, tons developers on this site could clone it in a weekend if they wanted. Like you mentioned the level of polish SO has would be hard to achieve in a weekend, but making it open source will lead to blatant copies and bad implementations that would deface the reputation for excellence SO has. Maybe what you could do to give back to the community is have a weekly/monthly blog post that details techniques you use and goes over code. Blog posts like this would in a nerdy way be really exciting. I know I would be looking foreward to it each week. – teh_noob Jul 11 '09 at 23:51
@teh_noob: "Maybe what you could do to give back to the community..." IMO, StackOverflow (and friends) is already a valuable gift to the community. – P Daddy Sep 4 '09 at 1:19

65 Answers 65

Frankly, I'd be amazed if anyone could accurately predict this. I'll be surprised if our guesses as to how companies will use StackExchange come true in the first place... and a year is a very long time.

I do see Joel's point: FogCreek has to add value somewhere. Maybe that will be things like AD integration - but I'd be surprised if an Open Source version didn't gain that ability fairly quickly anyway.

Now, I think a lot of companies would want to use a hosted version (or at least an "installed and supported by someone else" version) to avoid wasting their employees time setting it up etc. The risk comes from other hosting companies. How much will they want this? It depends how profitable it is for FogCreek, I expect. I don't actually expect every cheap hosting company on the planet to snap this up, even when it runs on Mono and against Postgres - but I dare say there will be competition.

It will be a challenge for FogCreek to work out how it can add enough value to make money, but I suspect it will come up with something. Managing internally-hosted implementations would be one starting point, I expect - and that speaks to their area of expertise anyway, with things like CoPilot. I can see companies really wanting a private, internally-hosted StackExchange for internal knowledge sharing. Will the cheap hosting companies want to do that? I doubt it.

One thing which distinguishes SO from the phpBB style forums in my view is that it works well when there's a broad subject matter where a single question can touch multiple areas. For very focused groups, I don't think there'd be as much benefit. That may well make it less attractive for tiny web sites which just want a simple discussion board - which may mean it's not worth cheap hosts getting involved.

As for what the community gets out of opening it anyway - that's tricky. I expect (and hope) you'd treat significant patches with a great deal of timidity; applying someone else's patch to the main SO is a big undertaking. However, I'm sure there will be some groovy new features added by the community (possibly including those Joel would rather have exclusively to FogCreek, admittedly).

A bigger benefit will be to individuals who do want to run their own server but on a small-time basis which wouldn't merit paying for StackExchange. Heck, there's also plain curiosity :)

Personally I would like to see it Open Sourced, but I can certainly see why Joel is nervous.

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"I'd be amazed if anyone could accurately predict this" There are only 2 predictions and both will be made. So I am pretty sure, ~50% of the predictions will be accurate. – Lakshman Prasad Jul 7 '09 at 11:09
@becomingGuru: I see at least 4 - (open-source, don't-open-source) x (FAIL, profit!) – Andrey Fedorov Jul 7 '09 at 18:16
@Jon: I also would like it to be open-sourced, but that's only mere curiosity, not a real need. – Steve Schnepp Jul 8 '09 at 15:25

I was hoping you might ask, the podcast on this was interesting.

1). Yes. I suspect a very large number of us (me! me! me!) would like to get involved, and motivated developers make for the best technology. The customer is always right and in this case you have a chance to give direct influential access to a very savvy group of customers.

2). I'm not really au faitOSS guy, but surely you can choose any licence you like such that you could prohibit the commercial use of SO codebase in such a way that it competes with your hosting, e.g. disallow commercial hosting. Hell, couldn't you sit down with a lawyer and work out a bespoke StackOverflow Licence if you have to?

3). Definitely out there, god knows what their diverse business models are like.

4). Almost certainly. Historically, at some point every closed system becomes unsatisfactory to those who "own" it's usage. Be it Internet Explorer or the American colonies.

5). Can't see that kind of schizophrenia working. You're dooming yourself to conflicts of interest.

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I believe I am right in saying that the key thing with some (but not all) of these combined open source and hosted setups is that they don't open source all of their code.

They open source the core code so that you can install an individual instance of the product, say for a single Wordpress blog. But they don't open source the extra bits from their hosted solution that makes it easy to scale the solution to tens of thousands of blogs.

Doing that counters Joel's claim that a hosting company could get a competing StackExchange up and running in minutes. Though it only adds a little speed bump for them.

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From Wordpress Mu: "Ever dream of running hundreds of thousands of blogs with a single install of WordPress? WordPress MU, or multi-user, is designed to do exactly that. It is most famously used for WordPress.com where it serves tens of millions of hits on millions of blogs each day." And it's GPL. mu.wordpress.org – obvio171 Aug 16 '09 at 17:41

If you decide to open source at all, don't go hybrid on the license or the edition (free/enterprise).

Use something like the Affero GPL to make sure people hosting the code contribute back all changes, but don't use a confusing license, or you'll keep away the guys you'd like to have contributing to your code, and only attract those that won't respect your license.

If you have an enterprise edition (with AD support, for instance), what will you do when one of your users comes up with a patch to implement it in the free license? If you want to maintain the comunitity leadership, refusing features will make that difficult.

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Amen to the Affero GPL, it's both something that's going to please even the hardest-corest RMS types (including yours truly) AND protect your bottom line. – niXar Jul 7 '09 at 15:15

Point 4 has been answered convincingly by Benjamin Pollack, in my opinion.

Yes, there are Open Source clones and there will be many more (simply because the SO mechanism/UI is so convincing) but for a long time to come, they will be far inferior. I agree with Jon in the other regards.

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Let me be honest: When I saw the pricing of Stack Exchange, I went "WTF?". But then again: I am not a business, I am an individual. So if you Open Source SO, then that would allow people on the low end who would not be customers otherwise to become customers.

I am perfectly willing to setup my own SO on my own Server, well knowing that the whole thing is not going to be as good as your hosting, but for my free site it would be good enough. So no harm to the business plan there. Even as you may lose some people who would be interested in the small plan, I think that overall I don't see much of a problem.

BUT I see a problem at the other end of the spectrum: Self-Hosting is $2500 per month per server, or 30000$ a year per server. As we would need our own admins anyway to set it up, the "real" and "open source" versions would not make much difference - apart from the 30k$. This might hurt you.

And then there is the thing you mentioned on the podcast: What prevents hosters from adding SO to their portfolio? SO is a big brand in IT now, but you're also aiming outside of IT. I'm not sure if that works.

I don't think that an Open Source SO and the StackExchange pricing can co-exist, but then again I am not a business-man, so maybe I'm missing something.

Wordpress is a bit of a different example: They have free hosting, but they charge for stuff like changing your themes or making certain changes. So they are making tiny amounts of money from people who want care-free hosting, but they have a LOT of people to make tiny amounts from.

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I agree, I nearly crapped my pants when I saw the pricing. It basically eliminates any possibility of a hobbyist getting involved and seems only geared towards serious professional sites. – TheTXI Jul 7 '09 at 11:15
While I didn't quite crap my pants when I saw the pricing, I did realize that I'd have to already have an existing community or a vigorous, full time commitment to market the heck out of just one site... not to mention the half dozen or so sites I'd love to setup just for grins. One of the sites I was contemplating would benefit from a 3-4 way split, similar to SO, SF & SU. Just not an option for me right now. – Feckmore Jul 7 '09 at 15:03
That barrier to entry is almost a good thing, though. I can't imagine dilution is really a good thing for anyone. For example, stackoverflow.com certainly wouldn't benefit if there was an open source version of StackExchange powering sites about each and every language that people use. – user141115 Jan 11 '10 at 15:48

1) Open-sourcing Stack Overflow certainly makes sense, as now the community itself can partake in the growth and expansion of the system itself.

2) There could be a commercial-use license.

3) There has to be.

4) I've seen open source versions already, so yes.

5) No real point in doing so.

The SO community is already so well established it would be difficult for anyone to exactly copy SO and steal any significant market-share.

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You have a large range of options when it comes to open sourcing. Whether you choose, say, a GPL license or a BSD license will have a large impact on what people can do, as I'm sure you're well aware.

I'd say the safest model to choose is a dual-licensed model where code can be used for free under a viral license (eg GPL) but can be licensed commercially too. In some ways this is the best of both worlds but it does have a downside.

The real benefit of open source is that you get developer involvement essentially for free (apart from the time required for someone to organize and lead the project). The negative of the dual-license model is that if people contribute code under say the GPL license, you will have a tough sell convincing them to let you sell it commercially too.

The plus side of any open sourcing of course is that you will get free development done.

Personally I wouldn't worry about the impact of competing with IllegalArgument.com. You were here first and will have a large loyalty base as a result (like Digg and Reddit). Ultimately, it's not hard to duplicate the functionality of StackOverflow once you've seen it. I know theres nothing here I couldn't write and I think we're talking only man-months to produce something with most if not all of the functionality. By open sourcing, you can probably head off such efforts and then control the licensing as people will more likely use yours than duplicate it.

The downside of any open source effort as well is that once you've done it you can't take it back.

Other potential models including providing the source code for free but charging for support. I don't know if this would suit SO but it works for MySQL and others. JasperReports does this too and they have a dual license model but don't accept contributions to the official source because of the aforementioned issues.

In doing this you could also provide a basic version for free and have a better commercial version either by way of:

  • Modularized behaviour, although other people can always duplicate this;
  • Indemnity;
  • Putting limits on the free version such as non-commercial use or limit the number of users, posts or some other such limitation. Personally I'm not a fan of the "crippleware" approach however.
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I agree with Joel that releasing the source of stackoverflow as-is would destroy the business model of StackExchange. All the points he made in last weeks podcast are valid, whereas all the points Jeff made (and makes again above) are merely equivocation. Saying that other business like Sixapart survive in spite of open-source competition doesn't prove anything unless you have their books to examine.

The only way it wouldn't hurt StackExchange is if StackExchange customers demand (and get) some special features that aren't open-sourced, but until StackExchange is up and running it's impossible to predict that.

And of course people could make open-source clones of the StackOverflow software, but that applies to any software - there is still caché to running on the real StackOverflow software if that's what the customer wants. Also, I think sometimes people over-estimate the competition from open-source software that doesn't exist yet. There's a big difference between releasing a complete project as open-source and having some people track all your improvements to the main codebase (or forking it and adding 'enterprisey' features themselves), and starting a clone project from scratch. We observe the former much more often than the latter.

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"There will be". You're making the same mistake as Jeff, which is to overestimate the risk from competition that doesn't yet exist. He then also underestimates the risk from competition that will exist if he releases hist source. – U62 Jul 7 '09 at 23:05

The source code is only a part of what makes this site valuable.

I'd say the bulk of the value comes from us, the users, contributing our knowledge and expertise free of charge, in exchange for the warm fuzzies that come from helping someone, and also the recognition of our peers.

At what point did the number of man-hours spent on answering questions exceed that spent on writing the code?

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  1. Does open sourcing Stack Overflow even make sense at all?

    Yes, it makes sense. You get a horde of extremely competent and enthusiastic users as potential contributors to the SO code base. These users (me included) will contribute with new functionality, better unit tests, new designs, etc.

  2. Are there "hybrid" models of open sourcing that could work?

    It depends. Open sourcing the SO code base, but licensing such that it can't be hosted by anyone but you contradicts the FOSS spirit, but I guess it's possible. I can't think of a suitable existing license or a project sporting such a license at the moment.

  3. Aren't there other companies pursuing open source and hosting businesses at the same time?

    Indeed. WordPress.org is in direct competition with WordPress.com, TypePad is in competition with MovableType, etc. Both Automattic and SixApart seems to be doing just fine. Especially in the case of Automattic, I'd say they're doing a hell of a lot better after open sourcing WordPress than they did before.

  4. Won't we be competing with open source versions of ourselves anyway in the long term?

    Yep. I think the NRKbeta Doctrine applies just as much to source code and services as it does to copyrighted content. The only way to control your content is to be the best provider of it. If SO doesn't provide the community with the source code for SO-like services, someone else sooner or later will. Can and will SO risk losing the head-start to another service provider?

  5. Could there be "enterprisey" closed source and "public" open source parts of the business?

    Absolutely. See my answer to point 3. There's lots of other examples of service providers doing the same, but I think those examples weigh heavy enough (for now, at least).

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Good answer(s). I'd suggest maybe editing your post -- put each of the 5 questions directly above your replies, as not many people will scroll up & down to correlate your replies with the questions. – Dan Jul 7 '09 at 12:48
"If SO doesn't provide the community with the source code for SO-like services, someone else sooner or later will." - I think this comment is the key point to evaluate. If it's true, and I believe it is, then there is a significant reason to consider open-sourcing SO. – Feckmore Jul 7 '09 at 14:57
“Especially in the case of Automattic, I'd say they're doing a hell of a lot better after open sourcing WordPress than they did before.” Actually, Wordpress was open-source long before Automattic exaisted. – Matthew Bischoff Jul 7 '09 at 15:10
Reddit opensourced its code, and that doesn't mean thousand of reddit-alike websites drive users away. And to stifle competition there's a nice license option : Affero GPL. – wazoox Jul 10 '09 at 10:08
  1. Currently, it wouldn't make any sense. Open source only make business sense when there is a community of users or businesses that find supporting a core software module/product useful for their business, but not part of their core business and thus to risky to devote resources to. By everyone contributing to the open code base, the risk is dispersed.

    • The classic example of this is the HTTP server. Every company needs one, but it rarely falls within a company's core business model.

    • In my opinion, SO as an application is distinct specialized enough that it is not a commodity, and therefore doesn't fall into the above category of software.

  2. Yes, if this is a core "engine" that ranks questions / answers / users, you could choose to open source that. For example, you could open source the "badges" component.

  3. Yes there are companies based on open source. You should evaluate how successful they have been and if their success matches up with your goals. Note that two of the companies you listed were acquired.

  4. Seems like you already have the answer to this question. Yes, I agree - you will be competing against open source clones, particularly in markets you may not have entered yet (Asia, Eastern Europe)

  5. See answer to #2 - if you want to provide an open source version of "Stack Engine" you could do so - but the only benefit would likely be goodwill of the community. As such, should not have the full features of the core site.

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Joel has a point that if you open source something and try to create a business from just hosting the same identical thing you don’t have much of a business model.

Making money from open source is all about added value. You can open source stack overflow, and people will use it, some may host it, but you have to show that StackExchange adds value, great uptime, staff to help you personalise and set up your site, experience of large knowledge exchange sites, and custom coding. The business that doesn’t want to pay for these things and goes for the lowest price is not going to make you much money anyway. The business that wants to have the “enterprisey” features is the one that you make money from.

As for what benefits your will get form open sourcing the SO code, this is difficult to tell. ASP.net is not a mainstream open source language, but you have enough profile so you will get some popularity. For what it is worth, I think the best open source systems are those which are highly extendable (Firefox, Movable Type, Drupal for example) , I don’t think the SO code base was designed to work in this way, so it’s evolution may not be that fast and the benefit that you get from the community may be minimal.

So in summary, you probably won’t loose money but you probably won’t gain much either.


A potentially good example of point 5 is mysql, it has a large opensource community which feeds the paid for enterprisy community.

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I am sure that you aren't the first to comtemplate / go down this road. What has the experience of others been as a result of going open source (in some way shape or form) and what were their motivations in doing this in the first place? I think for some it has been desperation, for others a shrewd move since it has enabled others to build plugins for a solution.There are other companies like sugar crm taking an approach see here http://www.sugarcrm.com/crm/community/sugarcrm-community.html .

The approach you are taking with stack exchange is an interesting one in that at one level you are a business which operates consumer sites and in another you are then looking to commercialize the same back end software for end users. So as far as I can see for $1,299 a month i could setup a competitor to stackoverflow with yourselves - and you are worrying about open sourcing it and generating a competitor? $15,000 a year isn't a lot of money to setup a competitor! Thus this leads me to the question - where do yourselves see the revenue opportunities for stack overflow? I think if you answer this question then whether, if and in what form you go open source will come out in the wash.

I suspect quite a few people would be interested in just looking at the source since yourselves were early in on the ASP.NET MVC scene.

Trust this helps.

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Just thought I'd add to it that SVN and GIT are both open source, and people seem willing to pay for them to be hosted.

Also the network effect should protect you from competitors to your existing sites.

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They don't pay their authors to host it, that's what is Joel is afraid about. – vava Jul 7 '09 at 11:22

It might help thinking about this to listen to Tim O'Reilly's comments about where online value is: http://twit.tv/floss73

StackOverflow seems like a canonical example of something where the value is in what's contributed to the site, not in the software running the site. Even if many someone else's take the software and set up their own *Overflow-type sites, they have the problem of displacing StackOverflow's momentum and brand recognition.

Just having StackOverflow's software doesn't give anyone SO's infrastructure, or data, or knowledge about how to deploy the software effectively.

As O'Reilly says, even if you have the software for Google's search engine, that doesn't let you run another Google; there's a lot more to it than just the code. (Although, of course, Google still haven't opened their code, which I'm sure isn't for want of people asking them to.)

I think, from a business perspective, there probably comes a point where the code itself is such a small part of the overall value of StackOverflow, that giving the code away will do you more good than harm. Joel is right to be cautious just now, in that you're not clearly at that stage yet, but surely you will reach it at some point (probably shortly after Google does :-) ).

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The point of contention is not SO itself but the StackExchange business, which would not have the SO community behind it. And deployment & infrastructure is no big deal for an established hosting company. – Adam Lassek Jul 7 '09 at 16:02

It will without a doubt change the business model that Joel has planned for S-ex.com. you cannot charge $129 / month hosting when the exact same software is available for me to install on my own server, let alone the $2500 / month required for me to do so.

I don't want to downplay the functionality within the SO engine, but there feels like there is a big difference between SO and a blog engine in terms of setup complexity and options, complexity that perhaps would explain why sixapart gets away with charging for 'professional' versions and for support of it.

I work for a large bank, which for reasons of data protection (yes, even for developer chat) does not want any conversations occurring outside our network. As such we would only consider an onsite install - the choice between $30000 that Joel wants for an onsite install and the cost of a shared server in our data center - ~$1500 - makes taking an open source solution a no-brainer.

We've replaced a good number of proprietary solutions with open source alternatives, (operating systems, source control, bug tracking, wiki etc.,), being able to address scale issues without considering the license cost is a huge factor in our decision making.

So the real question for me is whether you should change the pricing of the hosted version and to move to opensource sooner rather than later.

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Even if you do opensource it, I don't think it will hit the traffic on SO in a major way, since it is the community that matters a lot. Just because there is another site to do the same thing, doesn't mean people will shift to it (and even if they do, the shift will be very very slow) since SO has built up a very nice community.

Cases in point are reddit -- I don't see any site using reddit's opensource code that has even a fraction of the traffic that reddit does. Same thing applies to wordpress -- even though there is a separate opensource self-host version of wordpress, the hosted version of wordpress has quite a lot of traffic. The kind of sites using it that will mushroom will be those for niche topics and specific subsets, and might eventually end up replacing forums in many places where it makes sense, especially for tech support for products like ubuntu, various linuxes etc. And many companies may even use the paid hosted version for their tech support, replacing their forums.

If you do opensource it, there are two ways you could make money off it, as I see it

  • keep certain enterprisey features of SO premium. Provide a free opensource version of SO for smaller companies and hobbyists.
  • provide hosting, and support to companies (big companies would definitely make use of this, since they can't be bothered to manage their own site). This would also help very small companies use this software for free (if they can't afford it) and probably would shift to the supported and hosted version when they grow bigger.

A very important thing to note here, is that if you opensource it, and people start using it in a big way, the brand recognition of SO will increase by a huge amount. On the other hand, keeping it closed source will mean only a few people will be using the non-public version of StackExchange. ActiveCollab is a case in point here.

One major advantage of opensourcing is that the community will be able to add a lot of new features to the OS version, and you could still make money off it by providing hosting and support.

Just my 0.02¢

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The key question is #1; until that is adquately resolved, all of the others are irrelevant.

So, does open-sourcing StackOverflow make sense at all? Absolutely not.

There is absolutely nothing that you, as a business, will gain.

StackOverflow (the codebase) is an application, not a framework. You want this to be a cathedral, not a bazaar. You don't want random strangers, even if they are fans of the product, to submit to the codebase. If users have ideas for product improvements, great. Let them submit the ideas. And then the SO management team can weigh them against other ideas, against the business model, and against the various costs, and decide whether or not to implement the idea. And if the idea is implemented, the SO management team can guarantee that it is coded in a way that fits in with the overall design.

Simply put: would you house your business in an office building that was "open-sourced" during the construction process?

So, if open-sourcing StackOverflow won't help the business, who would it help? "The community"? If the goal is charity, there are many more effective ways to give back to the community (of users, developers, what-have-you). The community doesn't "win" anything by having access to the source code--so it's not a "win-win" situation, it's a "lose-meh".

I think the idea is a non-starter, and I'm surprised to even see it coming up. Forget it, and move on.

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Michael seems incredibly anti-open-source in this post, but in this case - in broad terms - I agree with him (despite being pro-open-source). The product already exists and development time is not a massive bottleneck. I can't see a slew of new and amazing features that need lots of developers to implement. It will always move forward, but it is an excellent knowledge exchange tool right now, with sufficient developer talent behind it. And as usual, all Joel's points are reasoned and correct whilst Jeff's are... "but i want", "i don't think so" – Sam Brightman Jul 7 '09 at 12:45
Most open source projects only a select few have write access to the repository and everyone else summits patches to the project (and the majority of them don't get committed). A good example of this is Django. – Myles Braithwaite Jul 7 '09 at 15:41
"Simply put: would you house your business in an office building that was "open-sourced" during the construction process?" You don't seem to understand what "open source" means. It means they make the code public and license it in a certain way. It does not mean they have to accept any patch from any bozo on the Internet. In fact, they don't have to accept any patches at all if they don't feel like it. – smoofra Jul 7 '09 at 17:10
reddit gained a lot of attention from open source developers when it became open source. There are a lot of people who would never consider paying for StackOverflow, but would be great proponents of an open source version. – Andrey Fedorov Jul 7 '09 at 18:12
@Sam Brightman: I'm not anti-open-source at all. I think that open source is wonderful, in the contexts for which it is advantageous. StackOverflow doesn't qualify. @smoofra-- If they don't accept any patches, what was the point of open-sourcing it? If they want to distribute the code under a "view-only" license as a learning tool that's one thing, but that's not what's under discussion here. @Andrey-- You say "attention from open source developers" as if that were a goal in itself. "Proponents" who don't pay doesn't (by itself) help the business model. – Michael Dorfman Jul 8 '09 at 8:55
"Forget it, and move on".... Exactly : don't try to fix something that isn't broken. – Steve Schnepp Jul 8 '09 at 15:34
Open source can sometimes be good business, but admittedly in this case it probably isn't. This answer makes good sense - but only when considered through a purely utilitarian lens. However, there are other, philosophical reasons behind open source and free software as well, where this sort of utilitarianism is simply ignored. If SO management doesn't care about them, sure, forget making it open. But if they do, there are other than utilitarian points to be addressed as well. – Ilari Kajaste Jul 10 '09 at 7:03
I know you can put all of the "parts" together by learning about OpenID, MVC, basic account mgmt, etc, through the blogs and books. But I do think there would be some nice value given to the community if you could extract some sort of SO.Core that contained the base functionality of getting a high quality MVC site up and running. Perhaps I'm thinking something along the lines of an SO template? Everything else - the db, the models, the repository interface, the voting system - I'd consider that proprietary knowledge. You worked hard for that. Why share it? – Jarrett Meyer Jul 13 '09 at 10:33
I don't think you got the idea of Open-Source right. Open-Source soesn't necessarily have to use a bazar-model of development, Linux is the best example in the other direction. That doesn't mean, that your conclusion about StackExchange is wrong, but your arguments are. – Mnementh Sep 1 '09 at 8:38
Look what Wikipedia and Wordpress got out of it by being OpenSource. A LOT – Arlen Beiler May 6 '10 at 12:02
Wikipedia sprang to my mind immediately. Plus I remember nearly everyone I know "downvoting" that when it was created. Michael is Mr Negative, Yuch. – Michael Durrant Sep 22 '11 at 14:40
@MichaelDorfman Note that in the cases of Wikipedia and Wordpress, the software itself is open source. – Andres F. Feb 25 '12 at 2:29
"Simply put: would you house your business in an office building that was "open-sourced" during the construction process?" Yes. If I had a team of architects and builders and a building for free, while still being able to choose from many shapes and materials for everything in that building from floors and windows to bricks and nails, as wisely as I'm able to, then why not? – Alois Mahdal Mar 12 '12 at 23:43

I think it is better to wait for StackExchange launch and see what additions and modifications corporate users need.

It's very unclear right now how open sourcing can affect your business.

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Jeff, if you don't release the source, somebody will build it themselves. I don't think you need to worry about what open-sourcing the project will do. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.

SO's only option is to offer the users something different. If we could plugin to SO via a thorough API, that would make SO different than any spin off. It's not the technology that makes SO neat, it's the content and the community.

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You probably already know it but there is a Spanish social news site called Meneame ([meneame.net]) which platform was open-sourced from the beginning and they are still getting about 80k daily unique visitors (Google trends said: http://trends.google.com/websites?q=meneame.net%2C+stackoverflow.com&geo=all&date=all&sort=0 )

It's true that they didn't built it thinking about business models but they are making some money with it.

And of course they got a lot of clones, but they are the reference and the community was already built that's what makes Meneame to have an added value.

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I'll suggest you are not asking the right questions...similar to a developer trying to justify some implementation without having a clear idea of the requirements. Instead, you may ask:

What value does open source bring your paying customers? i.e., your advertisers in one biz model and your corporate subscribers in the other.

What value does open source bring your crowdsourcing partners? i.e., your content providers that work for those "at a boys" and reputation.

What value does open source bring to your future revenue? Do you need feature providers that work for "at a boys" and reputation? Do you need open source to undermine the value proposition of your competitors?

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One more: does open source enable any new business models I might be overlooking? – Joel Coehoorn Jul 7 '09 at 14:36

Lots of companies make money off of opensource software. In the case of StackExchange, you're paying for a service, not just a piece of software. After all, even if you open-source SO, people will still need a place to host it. And who better to handle the hosting than the people who help make SO?

Besides, consider the advantages:

  1. It discourages "security by obscurity." Since your code is accessible by anyone, you're forced to implement real security measures rather than trying to hide exploits.
  2. I think you'd be surprised at how it can improve a platform. Simply put, the 5 (?) of you may be good at what you do, but there's no way you can be any better than the armies of programmers who post on StackOverflow/ServerFault and are just as concerned (if not more concerned) with making them a better place.
  3. It would be most satisfying to my (and I'm sure everyone else's) geekdom to learn a bit more about the software I've been using for the past few months.
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One thing missing from the question is what constitues the SO/SE source code. If it is just an HTTP renderer with database interface and user authentication, then I don't see the problem with open sourcing that. The hosted version can get it's added value from the tools that are used to create the look and feel, administer users perhaps, do automatic backups and any other housekeeping chores. If SE is being aimed at non-IT based companies, they aren't going to know the ins and outs of CSS to set it up properly for the SO engine. I'm sure there are a few other tools that can add to the value of a hosted solution that need not be put into the open source version. This allows the small groups to benefit as well. Who knows, it may prompt someone to suggest to their employer to use the system. Also, open sourcing the SO engine would give you added benefits - localisation for one, especially those non left-to-right-top-to-bottom formatted languages.


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I find the concept of open sourcing a saas product interesting.

On one hand I can understand the concept that withholding the source code gives a major competitive advantage, and of course it may lead to someone creating his/her own clone (think of identi.ca for twitter).

But there is something that can also be considered: stackexchange concept embraces a lot of generatives that would make it better than free/open source and thus valuable by itself (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/01/better_than_fre.php)

  • Immediacy, it's going to be the first service of it's kind available and as a saas setup time is (should be) minimal (compared to installing the open source version on your own server).
  • Personalization, well that's the whole goal of stackexchange
  • Interpretation, this essentially boils down that stackexchange would also be the best group to provide commercial support. Essentially saying you can deploy the software on your server for free (and thus provide you the control) but technical support can be bought for your piece of mind (plus other services such as consulting (or certification for onsite support), interpretation/analysis of the data could be considered ie: how to improve/increase interaction amongst the users of a client).
  • Authenticity, only stackexchange by the creators of stackoverflow can give this.
  • Accessibility, a saas is available everywhere (though an API and mobile version would be nice), an internally deployed version might not be.
  • Embodiment and Patronage might not apply to stackexchange as pure saas play
  • Findability, stackexchange is a brand and it can promote itself more than the open sourced version and therefore get more clients. Also stackexchange will profit from the relation to stackoverflow (this also enforces the authenticity)

Regardless if stackexchange will have an open sourced version or not, it does seem to have all the ingredients for success.

Personally I believe that an open sourced version would help stackexchange to be more successful as it reinforces a lot of the points mentioned above and it could open the last two point Embodiment (local stack exchange user groups) and Patronage (users giving back by evangelizing and contributing code / plugins / bug fixes etc)

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Not only will open-sourcing stack overflow hit your business model, but also mere talk of it will hurt the business model.

So I think you just decide pretty soon and announce you will never open-source stack overflow.

Having said that, Jeff, you have my email and I would be glad if in exchange for this suggestion you sent me the latest tarball with installation instructions so that I can tinker with Stack Overflow.

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Turn the question on its head: How does freeing (not to be confused with open-source which misses the point) change the game for stackoverflow.com LLC?

There is only one reason to free your software: enable your users, provide them with the freedom that comes with your software, the freedom to implement all of those UserVoice features and bug fixes they've been whining about.

Fact is, with the correct license (e.g. Affero GPL as suggested above), your competition will only come from companies and individuals that share your views (and goals) of free software. Any competitor will have to do the same thing as you: create value for the end-user. I dare say, nobody does this better than you and therefore you have nothing to fear from freeing stackoverflow.

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Come on man, it's Stallman. Do you really think he would tolerate that? Try gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html. – Anonymous Jul 9 '09 at 23:12

I wouldn't worry about it until you start having actual competitors, excluding of course Chinese knock-offs.

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Jeff, consider this:

When it comes to the actual content of the site, Joel seems to embrace the bazaar model. He wants the silly questions and the big, involved questions too. From some things you have said on the podcast, I get the impression that you would like to keep the content as refined as possible and at times you actually seem annoyed by questions you deem to be beneath the site.

What do you think it's going to be like when people who you don't agree with are changing the code base as well as the content in a way you do not like?

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Who says everybody gets to change the code base? They'd be free to fork off their own version, but they'd have to build their own community. – David Thornley Jul 7 '09 at 21:45

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