The Hidden Crisis in Open Source Development: A Call to Action | by Adam King | Jun, 2023

When we articulate “free” in the context of open-source software, our reference transcends mere cost. We are underlining freedom: the liberty to run, study, redistribute, and modify the software. This freedom imbues users with control over their computing — a core tenet of the open-source movement. Yet, this liberty brings an unintended repercussion: the so-called “free business model” that many open-source software projects unwittingly adopt.

In this model, the software is freely accessible, and anyone can contribute code to enhance it. Contributors might derive a sense of satisfaction from adding value to the project, yet they often receive no tangible rewards for their effort. This imbalance births several challenges that ripple out, affecting not just the contributors, but also the users and the broader tech ecosystem.

Free and open-source software, the lifeblood of the digital revolution, serving as the backbone of technological innovation, is increasingly strained to its limits. It operates under a business model that, although profoundly egalitarian in theory, often proves unsustainable in practice. The model’s ethos is simple — create, share, and maintain software collaboratively without direct financial gain. The reward, ostensibly, is the collective advancement of the global tech ecosystem. Yet, beneath this seemingly utopian ideal, a harsh reality teeming with burnout, lack of incentives, and escalating quality issues lurks.

Creators and maintainers often find their noble endeavor of crafting and maintaining software for the collective benefit morphing into a daunting task. Pursuing their passion, these dedicated individuals frequently navigate a grueling labyrinth of long hours, complex problem-solving, and relentless pressure. Such conditions can, and often do, culminate in burnout. This situation worsens when factoring in the large proportion of contributors going unpaid for their work, a figure that stood at a staggering 46% in 2023, unchanged from its 2021 level according to a Tidelift survey.

The absence of direct financial incentives often leads to a motivation deficit to maintain and improve the software over time. This can result in a plethora of quality issues, with software often left with unresolved bugs or stagnating, lacking new features and improvements.

Speaking from personal experience, as a developer with over 7,500 stars on open-source GitHub repositories, this issue hits particularly close to home for me. Despite my software proving useful enough for thousands of developers to continually use it over several years, the cumulative compensation from sponsors over all project lifetimes equates to less than a single month’s salary at any software position I’ve held.

The usage statistics for my most popular open source repository.

Such predicaments aren’t due to lack of soliciting support. Efforts in platforms like GitCoin, Github Sponsors, Patreon, and direct sponsorship have been made, but the financial support harvested from these channels has proven inadequate over time. Consequently, even as these software packages continue to find use, I find myself unable to dedicate the necessary time for their maintenance and further development.

The ripple effects of these challenges extend to the consumers — both individual and corporate. While the initial appeal of free, community-driven software might seem enticing, the lived reality often brims with frustrations. Users might grapple with software that’s buggy or not user-friendly. The support can be inconsistent, with maintainers often struggling to keep up with the influx of queries and bug reports due to resource or time constraints.

This landscape also breeds a breeding ground for security issues, a facet of open-source software that’s hard to ignore. The Log4shell vulnerabilities that emerged in the Log4j Java library in December 2021 underscored this point, as the developers of the affected library found themselves tirelessly mitigating problems, without compensation or substantial recognition for their freely used work.

The ‘free rider problem’, a renowned economic conundrum, looms large in open-source software. This concept refers to situations where individuals or entities benefit from resources or services without shouldering their provision costs. Within the open-source software sphere, the free rider problem materializes when significantly profitable companies incorporate open-source projects in their products without contributing adequate compensation or support to these projects’ maintainers. This frustration sparked incidents like Marak Squires intentionally disrupting his popular npm packages in early January, protesting against Fortune 500 companies exploiting his unpaid work.

An artist’s depiction of the free rider problem in open-source software. Image by author, generated with Stable Diffusion and Photoshop.

Despite these hurdles, the open-source software community has displayed remarkable resilience. This ecosystem continues to thrive due to the collective strength of its contributors, who persist out of a sense of duty, passion, or belief in the power of collaborative innovation. But one lingering question remains: for how much longer?

This just isn’t sustainable in the long run. The need to reassess the ‘free’ business model in open-source software is not only ripe; it’s crucial for preserving this invaluable resource.

When we reference software giants, we refer to those organizations whose influence pervades our daily life: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. These corporations have developed the platforms and technologies upon which we’ve come to depend, from the operating systems on our smartphones to the websites we browse for shopping and social media platforms for connecting with loved ones. But what position do these titans occupy in the open-source ecosystem?

To understand this further, let’s take a step back and examine the overall landscape. The conundrum we face within the open-source community is akin to a seesaw. As the imbalance between contributions and utilization continues unchecked, we teeter on the brink of reaching a point of no return. The fewer the contributors and the greater the users, the steeper the seesaw tilts, creating an even greater imbalance where only software giants with massive repositories of well-funded, private code can compete. We are currently seeing a vicious cycle that, if left unaddressed, threatens to spin out of control.

These software giants, while influential, often have a vested interest in maintaining significant portions of their software as closed-source. This stems largely from the proprietary nature of the technologies they develop, crucial to their business strategies. Closed-source software affords these companies a competitive advantage, enables the protection of their intellectual property, and offers them more control over their product’s development, quality, and security.

However, these very same software behemoths are also among the largest consumers of open-source software. They routinely integrate open-source libraries into their offerings — without any compensation — and even release some of their code as open-source. By doing so, they leverage the collaborative essence of open-source development and foster goodwill within the developer community. But this symbiotic relationship is not without its complexities and controversies.The renowned science fiction author, William Gibson, once remarked,

“The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”

This quote holds true for our open-source ecosystem, where software giants enjoy a plethora of benefits, while the burdens are not as evenly distributed. It is all too simple for software giants to take what they need from the open-source world, build upon it for their own needs, all the while maintaining their most valuable code in privacy to constantly increase the size of their competitive advantage over smaller developers.

Consider Google, for instance. While it has made notable contributions to the open-source community via projects like Android and Chromium, its handling of certain open-source projects has attracted criticism. Google’s decision to block third-party cookies in Chrome, ostensibly for privacy reasons, faced backlash from some in the open-source community who saw this as an attempt to consolidate its dominance in the online advertising market.

Amazon’s use of the MongoDB database software in its AWS cloud services is another controversial case. MongoDB, an open-source database system, changed its licensing in response to what it perceived as Amazon exploiting its software without giving back to the community. This event sparked a debate about the responsibility of companies benefiting from open-source software to contribute back to the community.

The recruitment of open-source developers by these software giants adds to the contention. On one side, these developers often receive the resources and support to work full-time on their open-source projects, fostering significant advancements. On the flip side, this hiring trend risks a brain drain in the open-source community, leaving fewer developers available for other projects.

Moreover, these software giants are notorious for their “walled gardens” — closed ecosystems where the company controls all facets of user experience. While this can provide users with a consistent, streamlined experience, it can also choke competition and innovation. Smaller developers may find themselves at a disadvantage, unable to penetrate these ecosystems or forced to abide by stringent rules. Furthermore, these walled gardens often intentionally lead to a lack of interoperability between different ecosystems, causing inconvenience to users.

The result is more vendor lock-in, more centralization of high-value software, and a much worse developer experience for builders. This is clearly not sustainable.

To illustrate the influence of these walled gardens on the software ecosystem, one can consider Apple’s App Store policies, which have been a large source of ongoing controversy. Critics argue they limit competition and grant Apple excessive control over the software ecosystem on its devices.

Apple’s App Store operates under this walled garden model, specifically meaning that Apple exerts control over what can be offered on its platform and sets certain rules and guidelines that developers must adhere to. One of these rules is that all in-app purchases must go through Apple’s own payment system, for which Apple takes up to a 30% commission. This has caused discontent among some app creators, as it can significantly reduce their profit margins. The most notable dispute involving this policy has been with Epic Games, the developer of the popular game Fortnite. In August 2020, Epic Games tried to bypass Apple’s payment system by implementing its own payments in-game, leading to Fortnite being removed from the App Store.

This sparked a legal battle between Epic and Apple, which has drawn significant attention to Apple’s App Store policies and their impact on app developers. This case could potentially have significant, far-reaching implications for the future operation of the App Store, similar platforms, and walled gardens as a whole. Even after a federal judge ruled that Apple must enable third-party payment options and lower it’s commission for certain partners, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney is not happy with the results, stating,

“The problem here is a classic monopoly tie. You start with hardware. Apple make smartphones and they profit from their smartphones — and they deserve to. But then they force all buyers of their smartphones to use their app store exclusively for obtaining digital content. They prevent all other app stores from competing with them on hardware that’s owned by a billion end users. That’s the first tie and that completely obstructs all competition and market forces that would shape better app stores and better deals for consumers.”

In conclusion, while software giants play a critical role in the development and promotion of open-source software, their relationship with the open-source community is intricate, multifaceted, and complex at best. As open-source software usage continues to surge, it is imperative to navigate these complexities in a manner that bolsters the sustainability of the open-source ecosystem and encourages a healthier power balance between the software giants and the open-source community.

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