Open Source: In praise of the profiteering enterprise, the greedy freeloader, and the selfish developer
Recently, Matt Asay talked about a number of different issues causing conflict in the free and open source world in a piece titled “The new struggles facing open source” and comes to the conclusion that currently the biggest problem is the role of enterprises controlling projects (he says “controlling the community” which is impossible, if you’ve every tried it). He makes a lot of sense but I don’t entirely agree with his points about the role of businesses in open source being detrimental. Hadoop, Spark, Storm, Kafka, Hive, HBase etc all came from enterprises that still employ the majority of the core contributors in most cases. Why did these companies create these technologies? Not for philanthropy. Not for the greater good. For better profit via better infrastructure. Having created those technologies they decided to open source them. For the greater good? No. For lower maintenance, and better profits, with side benefits of better mindshare and easier recruiting. Did these companies open source their domain-specific intellectual property that is the basis of their business? No, and they never will. They only open sourced internally developed infrastructure that is tangential to their business. Do these companies believe that all ideas inherently belong to the people of the world? No. They put into open source what was in their best interest to do so. Self-interest all round. Score 1 point for greed.
In another piece titled “Enterprises still miss the real point of open source” Matt argues that enterprises, while they are using a lot of open source, still don’t get it. He finishes with:
Again, merely using open source isn’t enough. Contributions are required.
But let’s look at “The rise and rise of open source” by Simon Phipps. This is a review of Black Duck’s most recent “The Future Of Open Source” survey. The net result is that across all the important metrics usage of open source for running businesses and creating products is now over 50% for the first time. Some of the merits are still rising rapidly. 78% of respondents report they are running their business with open source software. Indicating that an approach based on, and using, open source is now the mainstream, and that purely proprietary approaches are now the minority. As a result InfoWorld is stopping their open source special interest channel, because it is now the mainstream. Yay for open source.
But who are these companies that make up these statistics, that represent the majority of businesses. Are they all contributing to open source? The survey indicates that while 78% of businesses are running on open source, only 64% of those say they are contributing to open source. What do we call the greedy who use open source but do not contribute to it? They are the Freeloaders. Matt Asay says they need to contribute. I say they already have. If the freeloaders weren’t using open source, only 49.92% (78% * 64%) of companies would be running their business on open source. In other words the only reason we can claim today that open source is the mainstream is by the actions of the (apparently) non-contributing the freeloaders. But isn’t tipping the balance of the overall market from proprietary to open source a contribution in itself? Of course it is. The act of merely using open source software displaces a proprietary alternative, and is a contribution in its own right. No matter how little you contribute, even the greedy who contribute nothing, still make a contribution. Score another point for greed.
So now lets look at the people to do contribute. The vast majority of these are paid contributors employed by enterprises and IT/software developers trying to get their job done and to rollout a product or feature. These activities include creating features, fixing bugs, translating, testing etc (the list is long). Enterprises fund these activities for several reasons including:
- Getting a product to market
- Lowering development costs
- Lowering license fees
- Improving time to market
- Employee retention
- Increasing mindshare and thought leadership
Developers fix bugs and contribute them to a project because they don’t want to re-apply the bug in every future release. This is self-serving behavior. Do I care who controls or directs the project? Nope. The core contributors of the project accept the bug to increase quality, which helps adoption, which grows the project. This is self-serving behavior. One of the greatest and most powerful things about open source is that everyone can act out of self-interest, and everyone gains from everyone else acting selfishly. This makes the model very strong. Score another point for greed.
Final score: Philanthropy 0, Greed 3
If open source is ultimately driven by greed and self-interest, how is it any better than proprietary software development? Because it is an inherently better way to develop software, and in so many ways that the fight isn’t even close. Is it philosophically better? Yes, I believe the fundamental principles of open source are better than proprietary development. But is it morally better? No. The underlying power of open source over proprietary development is that greed is naturally converted into useful contribution, whereas with proprietary development greed translates into channel conflict, price fixing, monopolies, class action suits, vendor lock-in, and inefficient, low-quality, bloated software.
Open source rules the day. But philanthropy and the believe that all ideas belong to the world did not get it there.