Much of the software that powers the world’s largest companies protects our personal data or encrypts national security information is open to the public.
Anyone can download the source code behind Facebook’s user interface, Google’s Android operating system, or even Goldman Sachs data modeling program, and use it as a building block for a totally new project.
What’s more, lots of the software is developed collaboratively created and maintained by an army of 1000s, from unpaid volunteers to employees of competing tech companies.
- Open Source: A collaborative ecosystem
- Dominance of proprietary software at stake
- Github acquired by Microsoft
- How open source is monetized?
Open Source: A collaborative ecosystem
Today a kid in a small town could get connected to the best developers anywhere on Earth and learn from them and even read the code that they’d written. Most of the developers contributing to the open source ecosystem doing it because they want to be part of something that matters.
This is the collaborative world of open source software, where code is written and shared freely. If individuals catch a bug or see an opportunity for improvement, they can suggest changes to the code and thereby become a contributor to some of the biggest software projects on Earth.
But this model hasn’t always been the norm. At the dawn of the internet era through the late 1990s proprietary software proliferated, Microsoft even went so far as to call open source unAmerican and bad for intellectual property rights.
Open source has essentially taken over the world. Companies in every industry, from Walmart to Exxon Mobil to horizon have open source their projects, Microsoft has completely changed its point of view, and is now seen as a leader in the space. And in 2016, the US government even promised to open source at least 20% of all its new custom developed code.
So, whether you know it or not, you are relying on volunteer labor in many cases of 1000s of strangers from around the world.
In the 1970s, the MIT artificial intelligence lab had a printer that regularly jammed so staff programmer Richard Stallman alternate source code, so that when problems arose, it would send a message to everyone in the lab saying go fix the printer. When the lab finally got a new printer, Stallman discovered its source code was inaccessible.
He asked for the code got refused, got upset, and ultimately quit his job to develop a completely open operating system called ngannou. In 1983. With this, Stallman spearheaded the free software movement from which the open source movement was born.
Sort of a very natural way to work together collectively, if everybody comes in contributes their piece, you end up with something that’s a lot greater than something that an individual could contribute on their own.
Dominance of proprietary software at stake
But throughout the 1980s in the 1990s, proprietary software still dominated, and that was a very lucrative way of producing and selling software and created an incentive for large technology companies to create a proprietary de facto standard.
It was against this backdrop that the open source operating system Linux was unceremoniously released in 1991.
It incorporated many elements from Solomon’s canoe project but was mainly used by hobbyists looking for an alternative to Windows or Mac OS. throughout the decade, though, Linux gained momentum as large companies took advantage of its flexibility and tweaked the software to their specific needs. By the turn of the century, NASA, Dell and IBM were all using it.
The platform itself changes nine times in our 10,000 lines of code are added to Linux every day, about 5000 lines are changed and about 8000 lines are removed. It is by far the highest velocity most effective software development process in the history of computing.
As Linux grew, other open source projects were also gaining popularity, like the database management system, MySQL, the Perl programming language and the web server Apache.
But for the layperson, at the turn of the century, the rise of these technologies could have gone unnoticed. After all, hardly anyone ran Linux on their personal computers. But then, in 2008, Google released Android devices, which run on a modified version of Linux.
Suddenly, the operating system blew up the smartphone market, we are still overwhelmed with the amount of innovation that is happening in that ecosystem of Android.
Today, there are over 2.5 billion active devices using Android. As Google demonstrated businesses were increasingly reliant Upon this complex web of open source technologies to build products and platforms quickly, and whether they knew it or not, this also meant that they were depending upon the vast open source community to maintain the software.
The ability for one company to produce the amount of software that’s required for any modern technology, product or service became overwhelming.
Today in a modern luxury automobile, there are more lines of software code than in an F 15 fighter jet. There’s just simply too much software to be written for any single organization to write it themselves.
99% of Fortune 500 companies use open source every web server is pretty much Linux, most people choose to use open source programming languages.
It’s this like, amazing buffet, you just come in and take this, this, this this this and you slap together something you can build, you know, amazingly powerful products with very little work.
Github acquired by Microsoft
The sheer increase in volume driven need amongst developers for a central repository where they could collaborate on these huge projects. And in 2008, GitHub provided an answer.
Today, GitHub hosts most of the world’s open source software projects. And in 2018, Microsoft even acquired GitHub, affirming the tech giant’s commitment to open source development.
“We have about 140 million open source or software projects that are on GitHub, and over 50 million of those have been added just in the last year. So, it’s growing incredibly fast.”Nat Friedman CEO, Github
And the community has expanded far beyond idealistic hobbyists, as major companies are increasingly leading the charge spearheading the development of open source projects in house.
Now we see companies like Intel, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, all contributing heavily to open source
Googlers have been contributing to over 28,000 projects in 2018. This number includes projects that Google has driven, as well as contributions it’s made to projects led by other companies or individuals.
In the open source world, you have these fierce commercial rivals who collaborate every day together, and they haven’t signed anything.
And it’s not just software companies, Exxon Mobil has open sourced its developer toolkit, Walmart open sourced its cloud management platform, and Goldman Sachs recently open sourced its data modeling program,
“This open source way of working turned out to be better, because even in a big tech company, where you might have 20, or 30, or 50,000, developers, you can’t compete with the 40 million developers that are now on GitHub working on open source every day.”Nat Friedman CEO, Github
But simply, open source development has become the new norm.
How open source is monetized?
So how is open source monetized when the product is basically given away for free? Basically, the answer lies in selling support services, subscriptions, and or commercial versions of the software.
Red Hat founded in 1993, was the first to figure out a successful business model, which relies upon selling support services for its operating system, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, anyone can download the software for free, but if businesses want technical support and greater security, they’ll need to buy a subscription.
After decades of commercial success, IBM officially acquired Red Hat in 2019 for $34 billion. It was the largest software acquisition in history
Well, Red Hat’s 100% open source model has been hard to replicate other companies like database program MongoDB, and integration platform mule soft, rely upon an open core model, meaning the basic features are free, but add ons and other useful elements are proprietary.
As these companies have racked up multi billion dollar valuations, there’s no doubt that on the enterprise level, there’s big money in open source. But as for the individual developers, the hobbyist who contribute to and maintain open source projects just for fun, their path to profitability is much less clear. There are a lot of different models for how people make money and open source.
One of the models is actually they don’t, a lot of them are volunteers and they do this in the free time in the evenings and on the weekends. But sometimes these just for fun side projects end up becoming widely used, critical to the internet infrastructure that we generally take for granted.
As one might imagine, problems can arise when critical systems are based on software that’s maintained by unpaid volunteers, with no professional obligation to see to the maintenance of the project.
This issue came to a head in 2014, when the security vulnerability dubbed Heartbleed was found an open SSL, an open source encryption technology that’s used by the majority of web servers to protect users personal data.
The flow has gone undetected for about two years and has exposed millions of usernames, passwords and possibly credit card info as well, they left this lock capable of being picked, because they didn’t write the code quite right. And when they looked into it, the open SSL team was tiny.
It was just a few people who are mostly working on donations and their donation started to dry up. And understandably, these incredibly talented programmers had a hard time justifying spending full time on this, even though it was one of the most important building blocks of the entire internet.
Ultimately, organizations like the Linux Foundation pulled together to provide financial support for open SSL, as well as other critical pieces of underfunded open source software. But the disaster served as a wake up call for an industry that still largely relies upon unpaid labor,
Now, companies are taking note and helping to formalize new funding models. In 2019, GitHub rolled out their sponsors program, which allows developers to give and receive recurring donations for their work.
For developers like a bouquet DJ, making a full time living around open source is indeed the dream. It’s still early days. But if funding models like GitHub sponsors pay off, we may see a new class of software engineers issuing traditional tech jobs in favor of independent open source work.
After all, the success of open source reveals that collaboration and knowledge sharing are more than just feel good buzzwords. They’re an effective business strategy. And if we’re going to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, many believe that we can’t afford to hoard our resources and learnings.
The complexity of building these technologies isn’t going down. It’s only going up. We can get that technology out there faster when everybody works together.