Open source and its discontents as a model for the virtual economy
A few observations from six years leading a company that grew a semi-popular OSS project...
Some under-reported uses of OSS (beyond the simple function of the code, and the reputation of the coder):
1 Open source is marketing. Basically freemium for devs. It proves that its makers can write software that works, makes their employer look cool.
2 Open source is recruiting. It surfaces talent that already knows your stack.
3 Open source is a weapon of commerce. Commoditize your complement and maintain control of the layer that the user touches. OSS is the napalm of tech.
4 Open source is geopolitical leverage. A dominant protocol that one or a few companies can control. Example: Google turns off Android services to Huawei.
Some ways to make money from OSS:
1 Selling solutions to their own complexity. Red Hat, Cloudera, Confluent.
2 Setting Licensing triggers. Let me turn off this GPL for you, or insert a clause for the cloud.
3 Open core/supported commercial version or feature paywall. Typically when you need scale, we talk money...
4 Access to large numbers of the right atoms. Managed, Web-hosted instances that need compute too complicated for many users to configure.
Some misconceptions about OSS:
1 That the code somehow exists and works independent of the active support of its maintainers. The code is just a theory in the minds of a small group of people. When they leave, the project is morbid if not dead. There is a project-community fusion that we need a German word for.
2 That it is “free.” The cost of OSS is inherent in the choice to build something. Most companies should not be building proprietary software themselves. They will pay their tithe to complexity down the road.
3 That the “community” contributes a lot. Often not true. Talking about community contributions in OSS is like talking about family when you refer to your workplace colleagues. There are reasons why those exaggerations exist. But a commercially backed core team is usually responsible for pushing large projects forward, who are paid for one of the four reasons at the top of this comment.
4 Governance is a polite way of talking about jostling for power. Once you build a popular project, governance becomes much more difficult, because the wolverines ensure their respective companies remain necessary parts of customers’ IT stacks by attempting to bias the OSS in favor of their other offerings. Foundations like Apache don’t solve that issue, they just formalize the conflict.
In addition to Nadia (whose writings are excellent!), DataBricks CEO Ali Ghodsi is really great on OSS and the business of it.