Wired recently ran a brief history of open source software and there are a few pieces worth diving into. You might wonder why companies like Google would bother making open source software when it’s a potentially lucrative product to sell or lease to its massive user base. The answer is that their goals and business models are different than a traditional software company, and open source aligns with a longer term strategy.
[Google] hoped outside developers would make the software better as they adapted it to their own needs. And they have: Google says more than 1,300 outsiders have worked on TensorFlow. By making it open source, Google helped TensorFlow become one of the standard frameworks for developing AI applications, which could bolster its cloud-hosted AI services. In addition to garnering outside help for a project, open source can provide valuable marketing, helping companies attract and retain technical talent.
So there is symbiotic relationship at play, but there is something a little more self serving here.
Let’s say a company makes its own version of TensorFlow with unique elements, but keeps those elements private. Over time, as Google made its own changes to TensorFlow, it might become harder for that other company to integrate its changes with the official version; also, the second company would miss out on improvements contributed by others.
Google opens up its doors and invites people in to use its software, and because it’s free its really attractive. This in turn locks companies into its services and keeps them developing for the platform. A low barrier to entry and an increasingly improving framework keeps 3rd party developers along for the ride and making there platform better.
A couple weeks ago we talked about some of the funding and security problems with open source development, but there are some other issues going on below the surface.
…money isn’t the only problem. The open source workforce is even less diverse than the tech industry as a whole, according to a survey conducted in 2017 by GitHub. Half of the respondents had witnessed bad behavior—such as rudeness, name calling, or harassment—and said it was enough to keep them away from a particular project or community. Around 18 percent of survey respondents had experienced such bad behavior firsthand. That’s a problem because working on open source projects is now an important part of landing a job in technology. If women and minorities are shut out of open source, then the technology industry as a whole becomes that much less diverse.
These problems are in part due to a lack of general oversight and uniform leadership structure, but these kinds of things still manage to happen in companies with strict hierarchies, expensive lawyers, and robust HR teams.
One way many open source projects are trying to address the issue is through a code of conduct called the Contributor Covenant, which warns participants against personal attacks, harassment, or “other conduct which could reasonably be considered inappropriate in a professional setting.” As common sense as these guidelines might sound, they’ve proved controversial among open source coders used to being judged solely on their code, not their professionalism—or lack thereof. The author of the Contributor Covenant is still periodically harassed.
Open source technology is the backbone of today’s computing, but there are still some issues that need ironing out before it’ll be the foundation for the future.