Unopened Letters

Fri 09 December 2005 | tags: Open Source, Sociology, -- (permalink)


This article was a weblog post written in the aftermath of the failed Autodesk/MapServer Foundation announcement that eventually led to the birth of OSGeo. Every cloud has a silver lining.

An editorial note. The opinions I am expressing here on this weblog are entirely my own. I do not claim to speak for any of the Open Letter signatories or anyone else but myself. My recollections and ideas are nothing but my own conjecture and thought process. Hopefully others who were part of this process will have stuff to say as well. Maybe their perceptions were quite different than mine.


AutoDesk and DM Solutions approached members of the MapServer Technical Steering Committee (MTSC) in late early October. We were told that it involved AutoDesk, it involved MapServer, it was going to be big, and it required that we sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Questions started racing through my mind… What do they want with us? Have they been working on/with MapServer? Where will this lead? My curiosity was peaked, but I was torn. Is it right to for most of the major contributors of an open source project to sign an NDA with a single company? Why can’t this be done out in the open like everything else? What do they want with us? What do they want with me? I must admit, the idea of a big geospatial software giant being interested in our little web mapping software project was very alluring.

Curiosity wins, and I sign

I signed the NDA. I wanted to see where things lead. I knew that most everyone else in the MTSC had already signed. However, I felt uneasy about it. Who could I really represent but myself? Was I supposed to be representing anyone else? That most of the MTSC was part of the group implied that I was to do so. I contribute a lot to MapServer, and probably had as much right as anyone to be part of it, but I still felt very uneasy about it.

A furious pace

Quickly after I signed, I started to come up to speed with what was actually happening. AutoDesk was releasing their next-generation MapGuide under the LGPL. They were going to take a huge risk. They wanted work with MapServer. They needed an arms-length organization to put their software in. They wanted to investigate bootstrapping an open source web mapping software foundation ala Apache, Mozilla, et. al. to incorporate at least their new project and MapServer. They wanted co-brand MapGuide and call it MapServer Enterprise to build on the mojo that MapServer had been conjuring. They wanted us to take a huge risk. And they wanted to do it in an awful big hurry. November 28th, to be precise.

We were asked to make a hard and non-technical decision. A great opportunity had presented itself. It was an opportunity to move forward with some corporate backing to create a software foundation that has the potential to give MapServer a stronger future. There had been mumblings about a software foundation for quite a while. Some had even taken to posting some information about what it could do for the project and why it would be a benefit. Here was a chance to make that happen.


The choice was this. Work with AutoDesk and announce our intentions to work together, brand things together, and accept their support. Or, we could do nothing, wait, and watch another open source project with big corporate backing, a large installed base, and fresh technology come and disrupt the same space our project was in. Now, you could argue that the second option here happens with our without MapServer’s involvement quite successfully. The twist is that with MapServer’s involvement, this happens cooperatively rather than antagonistically.

Update: maybe the choice wasn’t as binary as I make it out to be, but in my mind it was. AutoDesk was coming into the open source web mapping arena with or without MapServer’s cooperation.

Buildup to announcement day

So we made our choice. Teleconferences were attended. IRC sessions were chatted. Emails were exchanged. A letter was drafted. Verbiage was parsed. Things were agreed upon. Signatories signed. Journalists were embargoed. Press releases were drafted. Websites were built. Letters were translated. The entire thing blazed along, building up to November 28th.

Monday, November 28th

The first day after the announcement, things were actually pretty quiet in MapServer land. People seemed a bit bewildered, enamored, confused, and enthused. Most didn’t quite understand what had just happened. Instead of one MapServer, all of a sudden there were now potentially three. The press picked up on things (even Slashdot had it, but they linked to a press release instead of the Open Letter, and the discussion was light and focused on AutoDesk), but it appeared as though people were still in digestion mode.

The real aftermath for the MapServer community

After some reflection, a prominent member of the community posted a long message to the list expressing how pissed off he was at how the thing went down. Hundreds of emails later, it was pretty clear that “MapServer Enterprise” the name was not going to work for MapServer folks. Neither was the attempt at rebranding MapServer to be “Cheetah.” After a week of tumultuous debate, AutoDesk agreed to rethink MapServer Enterprise as a name.

My Reflection

Indeed this episode provides many lessons to be learned, but that is true of all things that have never been attempted before. So here, in bullet form, are some things I felt we the Open Letter signers got right and the things we got wrong.


  • The compressed timeframe between many Open Letter signatories’ disclosure and the announcement caused important and big things to be missed.
  • More projects, companies, and individuals should have been disclosed about the announcement. More involvement would have prevented some of the larger missteps from happening.
  • Names mean a lot, and the name MapServer Enterprise is perceived as “better” in any way you measure it, even if the software is not fully baked yet. If the names proposed would have been MapServer XXX and MapServer YYY, without setting one over the other in any way, things might have been different.
  • Press releases designed to maximize the exposure of DM Solutions and AutoDesk colored the entire announcement. This misplaced the focus that should have been on the foundation and Open Letter.
  • Press releases that were contrary to the Open Letter should have been carefully combed through. It should have been made more clear that this entire thing is proposed, not set in stone.
  • Behind-the-scenes discussions of a self-appointed group was not the correct approach.

Non-technical MapServer leadership

You know that scene in Dances With Wolves where the indians are sitting around smoking the pipe in the teepee trying to decide whether or not to kill the white guy and the chief finally makes a decision and tells them what to do? Well, MapServer is nothing like that. MapServer’s assumed leadership is a number of individuals whose voices carry roughly equal weight, with one, Steve Lime, being more equal than the rest. MapServer’s leadership, the MTSC in particular, has almost exclusively only concerned itself with technical issues, and its benevolent dictator is an individual who rarely exercises that power.

In my opinion, the MapServer project needs to formalize leadership and decision-making for non-technical issues in the same way that it did for technical issues with the formation of the MTSC. Our reluctant dictator clearly doesn’t feel comfortable exercising a lot power on issues that are not technical. We might not need a teepee and a peace pipe, but we clearly need a way to allow people to sit in the tent if they want to. Some may argue that MapServer is a meritocracy and doesn’t need such a thing, but this episode demonstrates otherwise to me. Meritocratically speaking, most of the MapServer signatories of the Open Letter are viewed as leaders by our contribution and effort in the project. But does that merit give us fiat to proclaim stuff like this by decree?

Questions for the MapServer project

How do we procedurally get into the foundation?

Where we are and where we want to be are two different places right now. UMN and Steve Lime have a lot to say with respect to where MapServer goes, but so do a lot of other people. What are the steps required to actually make it happen?

What are the details of the proposed foundation?

Yes, we want a foundation. We also want to cooperate with AutoDesk and as many other groups as are interested. Now is the time to start putting out all of the nuts and bolts details of what the proposed foundation is to look like.

How do we bring more projects and groups into the tent?

In my mind it is very important to bring more groups in right now. Some have argued that this isn’t really possible given how the announcement happened, but I think it is imperative that we try.

Is it important that those in the MapServer project who care meet in person?

Maybe there should be an open invite to a MapServer project “summit” in Minnesota to go over some of the project’s governance issues. If so, I think it should happen this winter. The path of how we get from where we are to where we want to be (in the foundation) is not clear in my mind.

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