Should Storytron Be Open-Sourced?

Back in November of 2010 when Chris first mentioned mothballing Storytron because of its lack of success, I emailed him about open sourcing the technology.

If the current technology were released as open source the engine could be combined with the front end and ported by interested parties to any and all platforms. . . . Based on the open source license used, Storytron reaps the benefits.

But the benefits would not be just platform proliferation.

[M]aybe somewhere out there is someone with a new idea that no one has thought of. They download the source, implement their idea, and upload their additions for Chris’ review. . . . If Chris thinks the idea benefits the engine, he incorporates the changes into the core code; if not, it exists as a branch that either buds or withers away. The continuous flow of bug fixes, new ideas, and variations grow the Storytron community.

It didn’t happen. Chris felt that the Storytron technology was fatally flawed and made creating storyworlds too difficult. He decided then that open source wouldn’t bring about the benefits he felt were needed. Storytron remained closed, the community withered away to nothing, and today Chris is the only person working with the Storytron technology.

Now, three and a half years later, Chris is revisiting the idea of open sourcing the Storytron technology. “What is open source software.” you say? Well, let me try an explain.

All software is build from source code which is compiled into application executables for your particular device – the browser you’re reading this web page in, the apps on your smartphone, the programs on your laptop. Somewhere the proprietary source code exists with the instructions to tell the computer how to respond to your clicks, taps, and types. It is this source code that is compiled into the application executable.

With proprietary software you cannot view or alter the source code. With open source software anyone is able to download the source code, view it, and alter it as they see fit. Another differentiating characteristic is price – open source software is usually free (but not all free software is open source) and proprietary software usually costs money.

The benefits of open source are many:

  • Bugs tend to be more visible and rapidly corrected
  • Software can be readily adapted to meet individual needs
  • It is relatively easy to translate the user interface into less widely spoken languages
  • Vendor lock-in can be avoided
  • Vendor collapse or product discontinuation can be mitigated
  • Easier to learn about code and coding from peers
  • Being part of a community of like-minded individuals
  • Any money charged is usually for distribution

But it is not a silver bullet for project success. More a community than a company, an open source project without active contributors is like one of those Western ghost towns in the movies – tumbleweeds rolling in the breeze and an old timer sitting on the porch telling you how things used to be before the railroad came in.

Most open source projects are not successful. The successful projects share several characteristics:

  • A clearly defined vision that is communicated early
  • A clearly defined group of users with needs that the software meets
  • A clear set of goals defined by the project’s leaders
  • Good project communication
  • A modular software architecture so developers can work on tasks commensurate to their skill level

So here’s the $560,000 question – should Storytron be open sourced? I have to admit I’m torn on the issue.

When Chris mothballed Storytron I was pissed. Here I had spent almost two years of my spare time constructing a storyworld and suddenly, almost without warning, the rug was pulled out from under me. I couldn’t even continue working on my own with the tools that existed since the authoring tool relied on a server component for running storyworlds and that was soon shut down. Chris’ promises of “something new” never materialized so I moved on and let go.

So, yes, I would welcome an open source Storytron. I would love to see how the code works. I would love to be able to translate it from it’s original Java into C# and see it run on iOS and Android. I would love to never again be frustrated like I was back in 2010.

On the other hand, I wonder if Chris is really prepared to do what open source requires to be a success. Is he willing to let software developers of various levels of experience poke around in Storytron’s innards without the required period of apprenticeship? I’ve worked remotely with Chris on a minor project called Teen Talk and it was collegial but what would the conditions be when almost strangers are suggesting code changes to his baby like some coked-up Dr. Frankenstein?

As HR Haldeman said “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s hard to get it back in.” I guess the next move is up to Chris.

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