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Peripheral Developers Are Key Contributors to Open-Source Projects, Study Finds

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University of Arkansas Assistant Professor Pankaj Setia

Peripheral developers significantly influence the awareness and adoption of products they are involved with by actively promoting them through personal channels such as blogs and websites, says University of Arkansas Assistant Professor Pankaj Setia.

Credit: University of Arkansas

An information systems researcher at the University of Arkansas has found that peripheral developers—those outside the core development team—make significant contributions to product quality, especially on projects beyond the design phase. Results also indicated that peripheral developers significantly influence product awareness and adoption.

"Our interviews suggest that peripheral developers are very active promoters of the products they’re involved with," says Pankaj Setia, assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems at the Sam M. Walton College of Business. "Using personal channels such as blogs and websites, these volunteer developers associate their identities with these products, and in this process, they become the ideal product emissaries. Working outside the traditional software development paradigm, they have greater credibility with potential consumers."

Open-source software development represents the next stage in the evolution of product development. It is based on the community paradigm in which source code for software is available for anyone to study, change and improve. In contrast to the proprietary approach in which company employees control the design, development and assessment of software products, open-source development relies on ideas from external developers and prospective users.

There are many examples of open-source software products, especially content-management systems such as Drupal, Joomla! and MySQL. The popular Web browsers Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome began as open-source software products.

An important component of the open-source approach is the role of peripheral developers in the assessment, enhancement and popularization of products. As informal members of the development team, they voluntarily contribute their time and creative talent to improving quality or popularizing products through word-of-mouth advocacy. Despite growing interest from corporations and government entities regarding the role of peripheral developers, little is known about their contributions to open-source software development.

Relying on longitudinal data from 147 open-source software products, Setia and three colleagues, one at Oakland University and two at Michigan State University, designed their research project to address this lack of knowledge. Specifically, they wanted to understand if and how open-source software development is benefiting from participation of peripheral developers. Focusing on product quality, the researchers asked if the contributions of peripheral developers were more dramatic than those of core developers, and if these contributions varied across the life cycle of the product. The emphasis on quality pertained to product assessment and enhancement. The researchers then asked if peripheral developers have a positive impact on product diffusion, or dissemination. Did the participation of peripheral developers lead to greater awareness and adoption of products?

Setia says the answer is an unequivocal yes. The results show that peripheral developers, seeking to identify themselves with a like-minded community of professionals, served as sources of information to enhance product awareness and adoption. Most of this occurred through word-of-mouth via blogs, websites and other online communities. Setia says software firms should not underestimate the significance of this finding.

"Our study has important implications for marketing managers at firms espousing open innovations," he says. "The peripheral participants may be an important way for marketing managers to bridge different types of product promotion. In other words, they may not have to choose between mass advertising and the more personalized effect of promotion via word-of mouth."

Compared to core developers, peripheral developers made more significant contributions to quality assessment, the researchers found. Outside the core team, the peripheral developers found "bugs," and offered and tested corrections. For various reasons—which the researchers think may be attributed to size, structure and governance of projects—peripheral developers had only partial impact on quality enhancement of products.

Finally, Setia and his colleagues found that the influence of peripheral developers on quality and diffusion varied across the life-cycle stages—alpha, beta and mature—of products. The peripheral developers' influence was especially strong during the mature stage, that is, after the initial planning and basic design of the software.

The researchers' study, "A Theory and Empirical Test of Peripheral Developer Contributions to the Open Source Development Model," appeared in Information Systems Research, a premier academic journal about information systems.


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