Tipping Points in Open Source

Over the last two decades open source has been expanding into all aspects of technology: from software to hardware, from small disruptive startup technologies to large boring enterprise software, from open standards to open patents. In this short post, I will try to call out a three tendencies that I think are reaching the tipping point in open source.

Open for Non-Coders

For good or bad, as the name open “source” suggests, this model has been primarily focused around the source code. Regardless of the intent or the believes, if we look at the open source communities, they are primarily composed of developers who are working on the source code. If we look deeper, the tools used in open source projects such as source control systems, issue trackers, mailing list names, chat channel names, etc — they all assume that the developers are the center of the universe. And that has caused a big loss. It is a big loss not having creative people, designers, document writers, event organizers, community managers, lawyers, accountants, and many others as part of the open source communities. We don’t have such individuals actively participating in the open source communities because we don’t have the processes and tools for such an inclusion yet. We need and want non-code contributions, but we don’t have the means to measure their value, nor ways to reward their efforts in return. Reward by recognition from peers, by the community, by the employers, or anybody in general. As a result, it has been a lose-lose for decades. And we can see the implications in many open source projects with ugly looking websites, amateur logos, badly written and formatted documentation, disorganized events, etc. All of that leading for the so called “open source companies” filling the gap when it is inherently an open source problem.

The good news is that we are getting various signals indicating it is reaching the tipping point and a change is on the way:

  • Linus Torvalds apologises for his “bad behavior”. While this is not an action specifically focused around non-coders, it is a very symbolic act in making “open source” a non-hostile place for less-technical contributors.
  • CNCF introduced the non-code contributions guide. In addition to showing how many ways there are for contributing to open source projects as a non-coder, this also sets the baseline for such contributions that other open source projects and foundations will end up following to keep up.
  • More or less around at the same time, ASF has been working in the same direction. There have been long discussions and we will have some concrete output very soon (that is ASF soon).

And there is a little known secret. One thing that non-coders (and new to open source) do not realize yet is that the easiest way to be recognized and become part of an established open source project is by performing non-coding activities. Nowadays, with complex software stacks, and tough competition, there is a pretty high bar for entering a project as a committer. Performing non-coding activities is less popular and it opens a fast backdoor to the open source communities.

Macro Acquisitions

Open source may have started in the hacker community as a way of scratching developers’ personal itch, but today, it is the model where innovation happens. It is the model that even worlds largest software companies are transitioning to in order to continue dominating. And why is the enterprise so interested in open source? The “Open Source in the Enterprisefee e-book I came across recently lists a few good reasons:

  • Multiplying the company’s investment through contributions.
  • Benefiting from the most recent advances and avoid reinvent the wheel in-house.
  • Spreading knowledge of the software and its broader adoption.
  • Increasing the developer base and hiring pool.
  • Upgrading internal developer skills by learning from top coders in the field.
  • Building reputation — developers want to work for organizations they can boast about.
  • Recruiting and retaining — developers want to work on exciting projects that affect large groups of people.
  • Faster startup of new companies and projects through open source networking effect, etc.

Many of these and other benefits of open source are recognized by large organizations which leads to even more open source adoption through company acquisitions. Building an open source company takes many years of effort in the open. Hiring developers who are good and also willing to work in the open, building a community around a project, and a business model is delicate effort. Companies that can manage that are particularly attractive for investment and acquisition as they serve as a catalyst in turning the acquirer an open source company at scale.

Largest open source influenced acquisitions of 2018

Above is a list of the biggest “open source” software companies acquired in the current year. The list of open source companies and the following acquisitions is getting bigger every other day and this trend is only getting stronger.

Micro OSS Fundings

In addition to the macro acquisitions of open source companies, there is also an increase in the decentralized micro funding of self sustaining open source projects.

On one end of the spectrum, there are open source projects that are maintained primarily by intrinsically motivated developers. On the other end, large open source companies are hiring developers to work on open source projects driven by company road maps and strategies. That leaves in the middle a large portion of open source projects that are not exciting enough for the accidental contributors, nor in the radar of the enterprise open source companies. In the recent years there is an increase in platforms for funding and sustaining these open source projects through bug bounties, micro payments, recurring donations, funding, subscriptions, etc. These open source funding platforms (which I have listed at http://oss.fund) allow individuals and open source users to take the responsibility of the open source sustainability in their own hands and pay the open source maintainers directly. It is the same open source model, but applied for value transfer rather than code contributions.

Open source contributor funnels ecosystem

The diagram above show the three intensive channels for open source contributors:

  • Hobbyist contributing to open source projects because of intrinsic motivations rather than monetary value.
  • Regular, planned and centralized subsidization by companies with open source business model (open core, SaaS, support, services, etc), monetizing the open source projects directly.
  • Irregular, micro, decentralized subsidization by independent open source users through OSS funding platforms.

While the hobbyist and hackers started the open source movement, it got quickly turned into an enterprise monetization model. Now, having something for the remaining open source projects is welcome.

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A slightly modified version of this post was originally published on Opensource.com under CC BY-SA 4.0.