Technology Socialism is Still Unbalanced Socialism
Ah, Open Source Software. What better software could there be? Everyone contributes according to their means, and the result is a robust software package that everyone can use for free. If only. OSS has widely been viewed in the technology community as a great opportunity to equalize the playing field. Unspoken by many is that it might also release the choke-hold that some companies have on the software market… not that a choke-hold exists, but it helps the fantasy along. Well, it’s all really just fantasy anyway, at least says The Register.
The survey by Dave Neary, Gimp developer, looks at eight years of contributions to the Gnome Project. It shows a large “head” and a long “tail”. Out of 468,000 changes committed, 65 per cent were made by the top five per cent of developers (165). This again isn’t so surprising, since the most prolific are project maintainers. 11 of the top 19 maintainers work for Red Hat, two for Collabora, one for Novell, and one for Intel. 70 per cent of developers surveyed work in their own time – indeed, two of the top five, Kjartan Maraas and Christian Persch, contribute to Gnome in their own time.
Two disclaimers. First is that I work for one of the above companies, and have talked to many of the others on a business basis. Second, I’m not expecting any of my readers to actually know what “Gnome” is. So there.
But the survey points out what’s fairly obvious to anyone who follows OSS. It’s a distribution medium, not a business model. In general, a company or two will decide to release a new software load under an open license, with the promise that anyone can contribute. Sure, they’ll get a few people to contribute some lines of code, but it’s mostly on the initiators of the software to do the development. Big companies don’t release software under open-source to be benevolent. Big companies do very little to be benevolent. They want to make money, and in general they’ll do what they need to make that happen.
But it gets interesting farther in the article. The most widely-known OSS example is the Linux operating system. The latest darling of Linux is Ubuntu, which has been gaining traction as a low-cost client OS.
But as I was reminded by Adam Williamson of Mandrake recently as I ran through a list of Ubuntu features I liked, none of them were ‘Ubuntu’ features at all, but low-level contributions made (typically) by Red Hat employees. Software doesn’t appear by magic – and very little of a modern, large and impressive Linux distro would work at all if it wasn’t for a small handful of contributors.
This leaves F/OSS in a far more precarious position than it should be. Red Hat’s gross revenue in fiscal year 2010 was $748m, and profits have always been razor thin. In six weeks Google earns more in profits than Red Hat does in revenue for a year. Should these multinationals be compelled – through contract or shaming – to do it a bit more?
Um, no, they shouldn’t. But that’s not my point. My point is that there are a small number of companies that actually drive OSS, and some of them are not healthy. The whole notion of “free” software is still working itself out, but not to an end that many fans find desirable.