Open Source

How startup Kite tried to ruin two open source communities

Open source depends on a measure of openness and trust, two things that Kite has violated with recent actions. Here's how.

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Image: iStockphoto/PM78

Even though it can be hard to make money with open source, there are some strategies that should be off-limits. Take Kite, for example, which has reportedly infiltrated two open source projects to use them to push ads and promote spyware. In the open source edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People, Kite's actions would write the chapter on failure.

It ain't easy making green

Red Hat's plump $2 billion in annual revenues notwithstanding, most companies struggle to print open source money. There are others, of course, like Cloudera, MongoDB, and Hortonworks, but most financial success comes from successfully using open source as a complement to one's business, rather than the core product thereof. Think Google open sourcing TensorFlow to provide a convenient on-ramp to its cloud business, for example, or Facebook and others contributing to MySQL to ensure a robust database to build upon.

SEE: Why every developer is an open source developer now (TechRepublic)

Companies are constantly experimenting with new ways to build business on or around open source, something that Roberto Galoppini has followed for years. Recently he's been working with FileZilla and Storj, and told me over email:

When I joined the FileZilla project we had a number of interesting challenges ahead: make sure we had a constant flow of revenues without compromising on our values, identify a target audience that might be willing to pay for extra features/support, and create more value for all stakeholders.

If each of these sounds somewhat standard, they are. Unless you're Kite. Well, depending on how one defines "core values."

Thinking differently about open source

Kite, which bills itself as the "smart co-pilot for programmers," uses machine learning to spot errors in code, as well as to suggest open source projects that might facilitate development. It's a cool concept. Like many companies today, it also leverages open source projects to build out its proprietary products.

Unlike other companies, however, it seems to be intent on hijacking those projects for spamming purposes.

SEE: Why AWS Lambda could be the worst thing to happen to open source (TechRepublic)

In 2016, Kite co-founder and CEO Adam Smith insisted that the basic Kite product "would always be free," even as the company continues to "flesh out" its business model. Given recent events, it's becoming clear how the company plans to pay for its free, basic service. Remember the adage: If you're not paying for the product, you are the product. In Kite's world, the developers it serves will get served...ads.

By itself, this isn't so nefarious. The problem is how the company went about it.

As Adrianne Jeffries spotlighted, Kite hired a key developer on the popular open source project Minimap (Cédric Néhémie) and either hired or influenced the key developer on autocomplete-python (@sadovnychy). In the former case, almost immediately upon his hire Néhémie implemented a new feature ("Implement kite promotion") that managed to infuriate the Minimap developer community even as it allowed Kite to push ads into the Minimap user experience. There was no way to disable it, something developers deemed "simply obnoxious," though Kite finally backed down and disabled the "feature" in July.

As for autocomplete-python, Kite took over maintenance of the project and replaced the core engine with its own (which forced data to be processed on Kite's servers, sparking privacy and security concerns). Community feedback has been negative, chafing at the way Kite was apparently taking over projects and skewing them to their exclusive commercial self-interest.

That won't do, pig

As the open source world has moved increasingly toward Apache-style licensing, developers have mostly shrugged at the idea of their code being turned to proprietary advantage. This, however, is different. It's one thing to contribute to an open source project out of self-interest, which is what every commercial contributor on the planet does.

It's quite another, however, to hijack a project to make it solely useful for one company. The open source community is a forgiving lot, but Kite's actions go too far. It's hard to make money in open source, but violating the open ethos of open source is the wrong way to try to solve that problem.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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