Of Dada and Open Source

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

Related link: http://mojo.skazat.com

A little while ago, I read on the O’Reilly Network an blog entry about a cool mailing list manager called Mojo Mail. Not being in the market for such a software at the time, I read the interview with great interest, nodded thoughtfully at the mention of a successful, cleanly laid out, “it just works” open source project and went ahead trying to figure out how to speed up iDisk browsing. Little did I know that Dada Mail (the application’s new name) would be essential to my publishing experience a few years later and that usable iDisk browsing would only be possible courtesy of the folks at Panic, within approximately the same time frame.

Dada Mail, you see, has evolved quietly through the years and has now made appearances on some of the web’s highest ranking sites, as an integral part of their backend: it is consistently maintained, always up-to-date and its author is dedicated to keeping it as secure and documented as possible. While it is by no means the only active open source project out there, it does have a remarkable track record and has managed to foster a truly collaborative community. From a purely mail-oriented software, it has surfed on the information distribution trends and now provides RSS and atom feeds, a search engine, web archives and I am even using it as a backend engine for a blog.

While browsing the forums and mailing list a few days ago, I stumbled upon a discussion between a user and the developer, Justin Simoni, regarding the writing of a new feature, that was deemed complex enough to warrant the original author delving in (it wasn’t a mere patch to apply) but time-consuming enough to grow beyond the scope of regularly scheduled improvements.

The solution? The user volunteered to chip in and the author opened an auction page on which every user can pledge to donate a small amount to the project. If the community reaches a certain amount, the author will develop the feature, as if it had been commercially commissioned by an individual client. Otherwise, it will be up to the community to help develop it at a slower (but free) pace.

This approach actually struck me as most interesting. Why? Because it does not threaten the Open Source nature of Dada Mail (even the funded code would be released under the GPL) and yet, it is a sound community-driven way to push development around the most difficult corners.

Of course, the idea of sponsoring an Open Source project is not new, as proved by the see of T-Shirts we all store in our closets but I loved this community-driven approach. Openly requesting money may seem a bit of a sacrilege to open source purists but, somehow, this makes me less uneasy than purchasing a shirt, as if getting good software in itself wasn’t enough — unless the shirt has a real artistic value, that is, of course. Like Dada Mail, the approach struck me as simple and efficient.

So, what Da ya’ think?*

*I know, I know, not exactly the finest example of French humor…