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The Changing Face of Open Source

From Basement to Boardroom

  • April 15, 2004
  • By Susan Kuchinskas

While Linux is by no means complete, the broad strokes have been filled in: the operating system, the server software, the database.

But at the same time, the stereotype of the lonely programmer working in the wee hours is seriously outdated. The second generation of open source projects responds to specific business demands, and the people building these applications are getting paid -- even if the code they write will be free.

"The open source developer today is largely a professional developer who's been at it for 10-plus [years] and is on a corporate payroll," said Jeff Hawkins, vice president of Novell's Linux business office. "Novell and IBM and HP employ people to work on open source projects."

No stats are available on how much work is being done by developers on a payroll as opposed to community volunteers. The picture gets murkier when you try to evaluate the contributions in terms of lines of code.

"You think of projects being big groups, and there are hundreds of people who contribute," said Bob Bickel, vice president of corporate development and strategy for Jboss, which creates and supports open source server software.

In reality, just as in commercial software development, just a few people write most of the code. "There might be hundreds of people who contribute one line of code," he said.

It's also a question of point of view. Independent advocates like to point to the thousands of projects listed on SourceForge, the Grand Central of open source development.

"If you go to www.sourceforge.net, you will see 824,069 open source developers registered to work on 78,915 projects. To say that all of these are 'paid developers under one corporate roof' is fairly far from reality," said Jon "maddog" Hall, executive director of Linux International.

Executives with commercial open source companies counter that most of those projects are stalled, and, if you limit the count to software with immediate utility, the real action is in-house.

The reason, they say, is simple: "If there's very much work around an open source project, that developer has to get paid in some way, shape or form," Bickel said. "There are only so many people who can afford to write code for free. Serious software has to get funded some way."

Even Hall agreed that the in-house model has become more prevalent. And he concurred with others that the shift happened in the mid-1990s. It's just that the stereotype never got updated.

Bickel said there are two ways to fund free software: Create a company that can profit from services or enhancements to the free code, or find a corporate sugar daddy. Since the mid-1990s, corporate sponsors have played an increasing role. At first, they hired developers, then gave them free rein to work on open source.

For example, according to Hall, IBM hired Ken Coar, a contributor to the Apache Project, so that he could work on it full-time. "It helped out with their WebSphere, I'm sure," he said. "If you see someone who is a really good programmer who's developing a project that's imperative to you, to hire them makes good business sense."

But now, the companies are more demanding. Their customers need certain functions or applications, and they need them fast.

"The broad horizontal infrastructure is a vibrant target for the community development model, said Dave Fraser, chief marketing officer of Wind River Systems, maker of open source software for embedded systems.

But as open source moves up the stack from operating systems and databases to applications, what's needed are specialists.

"By its very nature, there are fewer and fewer people who are capable or interested in working on it for free," Fraser said. "I don't imagine that just because the State of California decides to go open source, everyone will jump in to build a hospital billing application. They're not going to be turned on by something like that."

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