Free and Open Source

I’ve never quite understood the appeal of FOSS (free and open source software) as a developer. There’s ego to be sure; it also functions as self-marketing in many cases; it may be a chance to work on something more interesting that your day job; but often is just outright altruism in the form of sharing your solution to a hard problem.

The challenge is that once software is out there, whether as a library or an application, people may use it and even come to depend on it. This is particularly so with libraries that form parts of library ecosystems, such as Json.NET in the .NET world. At that point the software becomes ‘alive’, and like living creatures needs ongoing attention. However, for many a developer there was never any intention on becoming a parent and instead they look for ways to forward on the child they are proud of, but would rather not have to bring up (I might be stretching the analogy a little here…).

This is something that was highlighted recently when the maintainer of a heavily used library opted to retire and a consequential volunteer allowed malicious dependencies into the library. Said maintainer raised a number of excellent points in his follow up.

We have to eat

Commerce exists because giving things away means starving. Seriously! We’ve developed complex and highly specialized societies that enable people to focus their talents for significant gain for all of us, but we still ultimately need to fulfill basic human needs. In this context FOSS doesn’t seem rational. However our actual contexts are more complex than that: we’ve generally met our basic needs through other means, and we’re instead searching for a way to achieve self-actualization and FOSS is one way of achieving this.

Altruism, or the appearance of it, is hardly a new phenomenon. People have been giving away the fruits of their day jobs throughout history. So what is different with FOSS, if anything?

There’s two analogies that spring to mind: working pro-bono or establishing charities. Working pro-bono implies a short-term service and doesn’t tend to have consequences after the transaction is finished, which is not analogous to putting software on the internet. Whereas establishing a charity is a more permanent endeavor.

To be charitable to a great many people you have to commit to running a non-profit organization with all its regulatory and societal demands. That’s a high bar to cross and demands significant organizational skills. By comparison, FOSS allows you to achieve that kind of scale of charity without any bar to entry at all, and so perhaps the problem is the unpreparedness of the creators.

FOSS can work, commercially

Continuing the charity analogy, an alternative to establishing a charity is to donate to an existing organization who manages your generosity for you (taking a cut). This is where FOSS has been most successful, ironically, as a tool for commercial organizations.

Open source is a lovely way of increasing demand for your product by reducing the cost of its complements. If say I’m Microsoft, and I want to sell operating systems, then giving away the software for free that enables people to build products for said operating system is a solid business strategy. Furthermore, because Microsoft want their developers to be as happy as possible, they’ll also enable them to make their own fixes to that software (think .NET libraries) rather than be bound to the priorities and release cycle of Microsoft. On top of this Microsoft now get the benefit of a whole lot of free development and QA. (I’ll admit I don’t understand Microsoft’s current strategy in this area with cross-platform .NET Core as now they’re making it easier to run on their competitors products, whether that competitor is Linux or AWS).

Something similar can be said for freely giving away APIs for Facebook and Google services, all of which solidify their market position and/or drive traffic to their products. It’s not quite so clear what the benefits of providing libraries like React have, although I imagine one could make business cases around brand management via goodwill, or control of a complementary market.

There’s also the smaller, but at times successful, model of selling support to FOSS products, as is the approach of Red Hat. This arises because enterprises tend to demand a strong level of support and well-known life-cycle models as part of making any significant investment and they are quite happy to pay for that.

In all these cases an organization exists to tangentially profit from the existence of the charity, FOSS. Non-profits fit the charity model even more aptly, requiring some revenue to promote or maintain their charitable activities (I’ve effectively been paying $100 a year to use Firefox for quite some time now).

Alternatives

It’s clear that any piece of software requires ongoing support. So how can the supporter be supported?

One option is to take the F out of FOSS, and acknowledge the cost of providing the software. After all, FOSS is not just about lack of upfront cost. With open source the consumer has the option to fix or improve the software for their specific needs and not be at the mercy of a commercial organization’s release schedule. However, paying for open-source software would be a sociological change, creating a barrier to entry that hasn’t existed for several decades in the software world, which would entrench incumbents, severely inhibit the proliferation of ideas, and remove the ability of people to lift themselves up without the provision of a great deal of capital.

Even if it were possible to make FOSS cost something, it wouldn’t deal with the underlying problem that sometimes people just want to move on. In commercial practice this means ‘selling the business’, but FOSS encompasses many vital but tiny pieces of software which are too small to create a single business around. Take for instance the library made by the maintainer in the introduction: it’s currently 352 lines of code plus packaging and test artifacts, and over five years (before 2018) it had around 30 issues logged. It’s hard to imagine a business built around just that.

However, you could have a business around lots of these. Is it possible to have a business that would take on well-used libraries if their creator no longer wishes to maintain them? Such a business might be able to generate paid enterprise support contracts supporting its FOSS suite, and that enterprise oversight would also prevent them from ‘going rogue’ – there may already be organizations like this out there. I’m quite sure there are lots of software consultancies that will gladly enhance a library for a particular client – how big a stretch would it be for them to take over a library when a creator didn’t want to maintain it? Perhaps Github can create a marketplace for passing on control of libraries and thus make it easier for players on both sides of the library maintenance business to come together?

There needs to be some industry maturity in the lifetime management of FOSS, particularly for small libraries, and my impression is the best option would be the formation of businesses that specialize in this, paid for through support contracts.