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The new struggles facing open source

Matt Asay | April 7, 2015
The religious wars have faded, as new conflicts around control, code ‘sharecropping,’ ‘fauxpen source,’ and n00b-sniping arise.

The rise of the company man
Control as a central issue for open source finds its roots in past debates over Open Core. While free sourcers and open sourcerors might have disagreed on the optimal license to guide a development community, both aligned on the need to keep corporate interests from controlling a project's community. This mistrust of corporate influence over open source code persists to this day, but as it turns out, corporate influence -- and control -- is both a blessing and a curse.

Take a look at the latest Who Writes Linux report, for example.

While 12.4 percent of development on the Linux kernel is done by unaffiliated developers, presumably out of the kindness of their hearts, most of the kernel is written by developers paid by Intel, Red Hat, and others. While I'm sure they would like to contribute regardless of a paycheck, the reality is that most can't afford to write software for fun.

This principle applies to most any open source project of any significance. OpenStack? HP, Red Hat, and Mirantis combine for nearly 50 percent of all code contributions. Apache Software Foundation projects like Cassandra (Facebook, DataStax, and so on), Hadoop (Cloudera, Hortonworks, MapR), and others all depend heavily on corporate patronage.

Open source software, in other words, may be free to use, but it's not free to build.

Still, some dislike the corporate influence for another, more troublesome reason. "I think pretty soon we're going to see how bad it is when every successful [open source] project is backed by a company, most of which fail," declares Puppet Labs founder and CEO Luke Kanies.

Kanies makes an astute point: A project may be very successful, but that won't necessarily translate into a financial bonanza for its primary contributors. If the company owns the copyright and other intellectual property rights behind a project, then fails -- well, the dot-org fails with the dot-biz.

That's one major reason we've seen foundations become such a big deal. Foundations, however, are not without their issues.

Cloaking corporate interests in foundational garb
In the past few years, foundations have become the vanity plate of corporate open source. While some companies successfully push code to a true community-led foundation (OpenStack comes to mind), others use foundations as a facade for "fauxpen source."

One recent example is the Open Data Platform, which amounts to a gathering of big companies trying to fund Hadoop distributions that rival Cloudera and MapR. As Gartner analysts Merv Adrian and Nick Heudecker see it, ODP "is clearly for vendors, by vendors," and they rightfully worry that "[b]asing an open data platform on a single vendor's packaging casts some doubt on 'open.'"


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