Chris Holt over at the Free Software Magazine Newsletters writes about Clay Shirky's take on FOSS
(in the February 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review). Holt's take on Shirky's piece (which I haven't read myself) is a little quick, but he does seem to take umbrage at Shirky's focusing on the large of FOSS projects that don't take off (for whatever reason, original developer moved on, no adopters, no interest, bad management, no need, etc) and its potential to scare off investors who look askance at the large percentage of FOSS failures (of course, thats precisely the kind of thing venture capitalists seem to invest in all the time - high-risk, high-payoff deals but thats probably besides the point here). Holt also seems a bit nervous about the ambiguous nature of Shirky's suggestion that particular kinds of FOSS projects are likely to be business-friendly (er, the worry being corporate exploitation).
All said and done, I suspect Shirky's pronouncements are quite benign. Pointing out high failure rates means nothing in the world of business. 95% of restaurants fail, and yet there is no shortage of investors because it is understood the nature of the business is such that the winning formula is only rarely achieved, and furthermore, Shirky could merely be pointing to the truism that there is a tremendous amount of flux in the FOSS world, and that its practices are unlikely to guarantee the kind of stability that traditional business investors demand. Is the latter such a bad thing? If anything, Shirky seems to be highlighting the unique features of the FOSS world that set it apart - so that those who claim its "just another software engineering methodology" might take heed. And it didn't seem to me that Shirky was saying (or at least Holt didn't point to it) that FOSS products score lower that proprietary products when it comes to things like quality. Lastly, the point that I claimed was tangential above might not be so off-the-mark. VCs are still likely to stay interested in FOSS projects despite the high failure rates.