Top open source contributors: Something big is missing from the list

Companies that use open source need to start contributing more.

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Image: mindscanner/iStock

It's possible that we have an open source sustainability problem, but it's not the one you think. We have spent decades waiting in angsty anticipation for this or that cloud company to destroy open source—we used to point fingers at Google and Yahoo, and now we mostly blame AWS. The end of open source has never come. If anything, it just keeps getting stronger.

And yet, there is something that continues to render open source less resilient than it otherwise could be. That "something" is you.

Everyone* is doing it

Look at the top contributors to GitHub (as measured by Fil Maj), and a few things stand out.

First, the cloud vendors, which many criticize as siphoning off value from open source communities without giving back, have far more employees contributing code to projects on GitHub than anyone else. (Separate IBM from Red Hat, which this chart doesn't do, and the Microsoft/Google contributor hegemony becomes stark, as Felipe Hoffa's analysis reveals.) Instead of bringing on the open source apocalypse, these cloud vendors are key allies that are working hard to save it.

SEE: Open source vs. proprietary software: A look at the pros and cons (Tech Pro Research)

Second, and even more importantly, there are no companies on the list that aren't "tech companies." Dig through these top 20 contributors on GitHub and you won't find a single bank, retailer, agricultural giant or, really, anyone without a significant presence in Silicon Valley.

That's messed up.

Sure, Facebook keeps up its steady cadence of open sourcing code (most recently ELF OpenGo). Google? The hits keep on hitting, well after the company delivered Kubernetes and TensorFlow into open source hands. The list goes on. But mainstream enterprises that don't see themselves as technology vendors? They're MIA.

This needs to change.

Open source software is eating the world

In some corners, it is. Capital One, for example, has been ramping up its open source efforts, releasing its own projects and contributing to others. AT&T, for its part, has pushed code (like what became the Open Network Automation Platform) into foundations like the CNCF. It has declared that it's "all in" on open source, trying to make the telecommunications industry operate differently, in a more collaborative fashion.

That's awesome. It's not enough.

Yes, I know most companies may recognize they need to become more proficient in software, but this doesn't mean that they think like software companies. They may know, in other words, that ingesting open source is good for them. What they may not yet recognize, however, is that the value they derive from open source is directly proportional to how much they give. It's one thing to use open source, for example, but quite another thing to be able to influence its direction and expertly support oneself.

SEE: Open source has a problem with monetization, not AWS (TechRepublic)

This is how a software company thinks. It's not (yet) how most enterprises that use software think.

These slower-moving mainstream enterprises still spend too much time letting their lawyers dictate how they use software. They still want to passively watch as open source happens, rather than actively participate. This ensures that they won't get the full value of the software they're using, and that they'll never be able to leverage communities to collaborate on code.

And yet I'm hopeful. When I see Capital One or other companies like this putting up an open source page, that's a big step in the right direction. Five to 10 years from now, I'm hopeful we'll see such companies on the top 20 contributor lists like Felipe Hoffa's. To get there, these companies need to take all software, and especially open source software, much more seriously.

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By 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.