How Linux thrives; Struggles with underfunded OSS
Linux has eaten the world. 96% of web servers and 79.3% of smartphones (the Android ones) run Linux. It’s used by Pixar and DreamWorks in the film industry. The governments of Brazil, Russia, India, China, Spain, France, and Germany? All have operating systems or subsystems using Linux.
But… many presume Linux is a rag-tag group of developers in basements around the world. How could Linux possibly sustain itself with developers working nights and weekends — and to this degree?
From the 2017 Linux Report:
Since the beginning of the git era (the 2.6.11 release in 2005), a total of 15,637 developers have contributed to the Linux kernel; those developers worked for a minimum of 1,513 companies. The number of companies supporting work on the kernel appears to be stable and not growing like the number of developers — but the 273 companies observed to have supported work on 4.10 was an all-time record.
This is not a rag-tag group. Top companies (out of the 1,513 listed in the 2017 report) who support Linux development include Intel, Red Hat, Linaro, Samsung, SUSE, Google, AMD, Texas Instruments, and Facebook. Although one of the other top ten categories for employment is “Unknown”, it’s safe to assume these are coders struggling to make it by:
It is worth noting that, even if one assumes that all of the “unknown” contributors are working on their own time, well over 85 percent of all kernel development is demonstrably done by developers who are being paid for their work. Interestingly, the volume of contributions from unpaid developers has been in slow decline for many years. It was 14.6 percent in the 2012 version of this report, but is 8.2 percent this time around (in 2017).
Red Hat’s Business Model
Open Source enthusiasts will recognize Red Hat quickly. However, the fact the company exists (and thrives) is still an anomaly in mainstream technology and business. In a world where investors hold ‘proprietary technology’ to be a key part of a companies success, Red Hat thrives off of packaging open source software, available freely online. In some ways, their secret sauce is their intimate knowledge of Linux, which allows them to thrive mostly off of the support and documentation (to the tune of a $23 billion market cap).
Building Open Source Communities
Gitcoin, also an open-source project, looks up to Linux and Red Hat as bazaars to emulate. Yet, it’s clear that gaining such a following doesn’t happen overnight. In 1993, two years after the Linux project began, a small (but not that small) group of 100 developers was working on the project. A quarter century later, 15,637 developers contributed to the Linux kernel between 2012–2017.
Now, this begs the question: how do you get from being Linux in 1993 to Linux in 2017? How do you build open source, while aligning developers incentives to contribute? Leaving room for a heavy sprinkling of luck, there are a few models worth exploring.
Eric Berry of the Gitcoin + Code Sponsor family has spent lots of time thinking about this problem. The short story … there’s a lot of approaches, but no one size fits all to success.What is clear to Eric, however, is that these 15,637 Linux developers and OSS developers are motivated in a few ways:
- Developers typically are financially motivated to build and maintain open source (whether via direct payment or building reputation and skills for future work)
2. Developers typically are not willing to take on a tech support role
The insight here is that while OSS contributors are not entirely money-hungry, it’s clear that a baseline of financial stability allows contributions to open source. Open source brings software into the world at a fraction of the cost to the end user. How can we incentivize more of this?
The Long Tail Of Open Source
While we may look at Linux as an example, the Open Source world must consider the long tail of repo maintainers who put a project out into the world, just to end up overwhelmed by requests for support, without pay. This long tail of developers captures the least of the value created.
As Tidelift recently wrote, the work of these developers is usually funded (either formally or informally) through subsidies. Whether a ‘personal labor subsidy’ (where the repo maintainer maintains the open source for free, during their free time) or ‘corporate labor subsidy’ (where the open source project is maintained during office hours, perhaps for use in conjunction with a business application), these developers are subsidizing their time, without any monetary compensation.
As noted above, this works for those developers who have a corporate job. But, it’s clear the lack of funding (at the very least) is a hard-stop for those who don’t feel comfortable enough in their income to participate in the market.
Ideas To Fund Open Source
Eric Berry recently explored ways for the long-tail to monetize in Why Funding Open Source is Hard, by Code Sponsor. An important snippet:
Donations. Ask for money from others to support the project.
Support. Charge for support related products or services.
License/Usage. Charge for usage of the project.
Gitcoin + Code Sponsor are continuing to leverage expertise and poke our heads into the open source community to come up with new, innovative ways to fund open source development.
We plan to share more about our current goals and mission in the last piece in this series, “Grow Open Source.” If you’re interested in being notified when that article comes out, give us a follow. In the meantime, we’re brainstorming with you — feel free to join the conversation here. 👇🏼
Open source is treated as the ‘non-profit’ alternative of the technology world, but the reality isn’t that simple. The philosophy that software should be free does not mean that we shouldn’t be able to sustain open source careers. The misaligned incentives leaves large value on the table, year over year.
Right now, developers are creating for open-source even when it’s against their incentives. Imagine what would happen if we could find (a combination of) better ways.
This post is Part III in a series of posts by the Gitcoin team entitled “Grow Open Source,” exploring the intersection of Open Source and Blockchain.