Software

Open source is written by big greedy capitalists. What else is new?

Open source has always been disproportionately developed by corporations, but the nature of that involvement is changing.

Open source has always been about capitalism. In GitHub's latest rankings of the most popular open source projects, however, it's never been clearer, albeit in a different way from the past. Now, as then, the most popular open source projects are almost entirely written by developers employed to contribute. The difference is that, today, more of those top projects come from corporations releasing code for corporate interests, like Microsoft Visual Studio and Google's Kubernetes.

Not that there's anything wrong with that

Of course, saying a corporation is behind an open source project is not to say that it's bad. Even if Google has some nefarious plan for world domination through Kubernetes or Tensorflow, two of the top-10, no one is going to complain. Both are great projects that provide huge value for developers whether they ultimately opt to push their applications to Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure instead of Google Cloud Platform.

The value of a project, in other words, stands alone, separate from the project's origin.

Of the top-10 projects on GitHub, measured by number of active contributors, corporate origins are now the rule, not the exception:

  1. Microsoft/vscode (19,000 contributors)
  2. Facebook/react-native (10,000)
  3. Google/tensorflow (9,300)
  4. Google*/angular-cli (8,800)
  5. Microsoft/azure-docs (7,800)
  6. Google*/angular (7,600)
  7. Red Hat*/ansible (7,500)
  8. Google/Kubernetes (6,500)
  9. NPM/npm (6,100)
  10. DefinitelyTyped (6,000)

Of those that didn't start with a mega-corporation behind them, like AngularJS and Ansible, they were quickly acquired or otherwise adopted by mega-corps to help further their development. Again, there isn't anything wrong with this: Absent significant corporate involvement, these projects wouldn't be nearly as well-developed or popular as they are today.

SEE: GitHub: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Indeed, it has always been the case that the most popular open source projects have been heavily developed by developers employed to do just that: Contribute. Even projects that seem niche-y (like the Gnome desktop) tend to see significant corporate backing. Why? Because if there's corporate value attached to a project, savvy companies pay developers to contribute. This is the only way that developers could afford to work on a given project full time, which is the only way a project gets the attention it needs to flourish.

This time is a little different

Still, something is different this time around. As IBM's Jeffrey Borek pointed out on Twitter, the first wave of open source was about "individuals, then mostly IT vendors, then Hyperscale Platform vendors (FANG). Now we are entering the fourth wave where more traditional Enterprises (CapitalOne, Walmart, etc.) are joining in."

IT vendors tried to open source projects that benefited themselves, releasing open source document management, CRM, ERP, etc. Success here was somewhat tepid.

SEE Kubernetes: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)

The wave of web giants releasing code has been far more fecund, in large part because they could afford to release exceptional code like Google's TensorFlow without needing to get paid for it. The pay, if any, would come through developers becoming familiar with the rudiments of one's platform (e.g., Kubernetes as an on-ramp to Google Cloud Platform), or building applications around it (e.g., React leading to Facebook). But this payback also wasn't necessary, since the companies in question have large advertising businesses that fund extracurricular "exhaust" like open source.

Of far more interest is this new wave of enterprise users who are trying to offload a bit of the maintenance and development of their code through community. (The web giants also do this, of course. Speaking of Microsoft's open sourcing of its Azure docs, for example, developer Ant Stanley wrote on Twitter: the docs "are open source so a multi-billion dollar business can spread the load of maintaining docs.") There aren't any significant successes in this area quite yet, but it's definitely an area to watch.

One thing that is true regardless of the reasons for the contributions: We're awash in the best, most varied open source software in history. It's increasingly the foundation for innovation. We should be grateful, no matter how narrow the self-interest that goes into creating this or that project.

Also see

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Image: iStockphoto/SIphotography

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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