Four women - a policy geek at Mozilla, an "open source evangelist" in Sun, a Gnome employee, and a python hacker - talked about open source development and their own experiences in it in the first session on Thursday. I have strong opinions about some of the things they talked about, but for now I'll stick to reporting what they said - especially since it conveniently agrees with my opinions. Maybe I'll add my earful in comments later.
While about 10% of the people in computer science programs are women (dismally low compared to pretty much every other field, technical and otherwise), a pathetic 2% of the open-source community is. A research group in Europe found this in their studies of open source, and a group in Paris is following up with ethnographic research to discover why. There are groups like recently-formed linuxchix.org that give women more support in this area that's often perceived as hostile or impossible to get involved with.
Open source development is great because you can build a reputation in a community and you have a code base to show off when you're applying for jobs, which you often can't have when you've worked for closed-source companies who own all of your code. There are cases in Apple where even changing departments can lock you out of the code. (Apple happens to be one of the most hostilely proprietary in this regard, despite its outward appearance of friendliness and openness, developing on an open-source kernel and all.)
Open source is growing: Sun and IBM are both pretty involved in open-source projects, and Microsoft lists Linux and Open Office as the second and third reasons that Microsoft is losing profit, after the economy. (It's interesting to note that Star Office is cross-licensed with Microsoft, but not its derivative Open Office. So far no lawsuits ...)
Open source has certainly impacted national policy, but hasn't been addressed as much in the U.S. The Brazilian government only allows open source in government offices, and China's government only allows the use of overseas software if it is open-source. Munich has abolished the use of Microsoft products, and India has refused low-cost Windows licensing. At the government level, filetype lock-in is not in their best interests. The European Union has recently sent a letter to Microsoft demanding open standards. There are also projects like Extremadura Linux (and Ubuntu Linux as well, though they didn't mention that) that are working to create regionally-specific open-source platforms, as well as open-source projects in socially progressive areas like human rights abuse documentation. There's a lot of momentum in this area internationally. Industrialists are also giving money to create an answer to the lock-in problem. (I'd add the major problem of closed source and electronic voting, but that comes up in the next talk I'll summarize.)
Patents are a big problem for open source, and for the software industry in general (as anyone who has read Lessig knows). It's impossibly complex to determine royalty amounts in open-source projects, and it's difficult for any small company to play the patent portfolio game, even though the small companies are often much more flexible and innovative than large corporations. It would be great to overhaul the patent system - for example, enlisting the open source community to find prior art, or make striking down patents easier.
Interface design is a major problem in open source. In the Mozilla project, the UI was the most contentious issue throughout the project - everyone had an opinion. Open-source projects have the benefit over commercial software in that the UI is not tied to revenue (e.g. no routing through a portal), but these projects also don't have the coherent vision that drives the design. The Firefox project was lucky to have access to a usability lab, but other open source projects don't put much thought into usability.
Stallman's dream is to have an Olympic-sized pool of code that everyone can use; in reality, what we have are disconnected kiddie pools. Not everyone wants to use "copyleft" policies like the GPL; others use "copycenter" policies like the BSD license.
Stay tuned for talk summaries on voting machines, women in computing around the world, and the future of technology. ...