“Open source was reportedly worth at least $143 million of Instagram’s $1 billion acquisition by Facebook in 2012. ”
Just like a thriving, busy physical world, the rise of technology has opened up an equally busy digital world. And, open source software (OSS) makes up for all the digital infrastructure we have today. Every internet user benefits from the coding capabilities of an unknown developer contributing remotely. There are billion dollar companies, which rely on these open source projects. But, do we thank the open source community enough? Today, more than 85 per cent of India’s internet runs on open source software. The State Bank of India, the IRCTC and LIC India are all examples of organisations that rely on open source frameworks.
Nadia Eghbal, a writer and researcher, called open-source the digital world equivalent of ‘roads and bridges’. Still, individuals tend to take the importance of open source for granted. In line with the analogy used above, we see bridges and know they are important, but open source code—their digital counterparts—is invisible, and their value goes unnoticed.
A majority of large companies and proprietary services today rely on open source code. For example, social media tools such as Instagram allows various interactions such as uploading photographs or stories or DMing other users. When a user carries these actions out, the part of Instagram’s software responsible for storing your data remembers your profile and then posts the image on your feed. Such interactions require building a lot of code. Companies such as Facebook (which owns both its Facebook platform and Instagram) use free, public code available on the internet. Mike Krieger, one of Instagram’s founders, spoke about how it was better to ‘borrow instead of building wherever possible’, citing that leveraging open source was a time-saving practice that allowed developers to focus on building their product. Open source was reportedly worth at least $143 million of Instagram’s $1 billion acquisition by Facebook in 2012.
The demand for OSS
Additionally, due to permissive licenses, Facebook and Instagram do not need to pay for this code they have complete access to. For example, Appirater is a library developed by Arash Payan in 2009 which allows easy reminders to iPhone users to rate mobile apps. Despite having a widely known use case, Payan made no income from this project.
Charging individuals for open source code would significantly limit their adoption. It is also difficult to charge a fee for something that developers build in their spare time. Additionally, a lot of open-source platforms are made to solve problems developers face with other software. For instance, Webpack was started by Tobias Koppers in 2012 when he could not find a suitable code optimisation tool for his master’s thesis in computer science. He was not happy with how other devices handled code-splitting—which Webpack allows. Today, Webpack is widely used and appreciated by users. Pete Hunt, former engineering manager at Instagram, spoke out about the software in 2014 and said that the social media platform (which is among the world’s most popular ones) ‘relied on webpack’.
Thus, open-source software works like public goods would with their contribution to technology and information. It then makes sense for them to remain free of charge. Not charging for software has transformed our society. Due to open source’s easy access, new developers are generated every day. The Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) predicted a 22 per cent rise of software developers from 2012 to 2022, which is much faster than other occupations.
Free software has made it substantially more straightforward and cheaper to build other software. Free software—or its components—allow tech startups to get off the ground without spending an excessive amount of money. Imgur, an image-sharing site, reportedly cost $7, which was used to buy the domain name. Open-source software has also democratised coding by making it possible for anyone with laptops and an internet connection to learn to code—regardless of their socioeconomic status. All of this has undoubtedly played into the skyrocketing levels of technological innovation that we see today.
Maintaining open source infrastructure
Nadia Eghbal sees OSS as ‘the roads and bridges’ of the digital world. Digital infrastructure is not as expensive as its physical counterpart to build, but it is more tedious to maintain. This is because digital infrastructure needs to be updated frequently. However, it does not have a governing body to take care of it, as physical infrastructure does. Instead, open-source infrastructure is maintained in different ways.
Some ways in which open-source software can originate and be maintained are by starting within a company or entering a new business altogether. Such frameworks allow these projects to solve a significant problem faced by open source software today: funding. Funding is a significant problem primarily due to open source software being invisible components of major proprietary applications.
Working with companies can go two ways: funding via corporate sponsorships or being acquired by the company. Companies that rely on open source libraries and understand the importance of keeping them secure and well-maintained are more inclined to hire such open-source software maintainers to continue working on their projects. Tobias Kopper decided to work on Webpack full-time after being granted corporate sponsorship and now works on Webpack for Vercel, a company.
Individual, independent contributors maintain many projects. These people are not paid for this work but choose to volunteer because they either wish to continue supporting it or want to cultivate their reputation in the developing community. Many cases in the latter box are computer science students who want to show off or practice their skills. Furthermore, many people prefer keeping their work independent and not monetising it. Samuel Colvin, for example, maintains pydantic—a popular Python library. The library helps creators make sure they have inputted the correct type of data in their applications. Colvin has said that he does not see a straightforward way to monetise the library due to its reach and usefulness. Many such projects then rely on means like crowdfunding or receiving help from venture capitalists.
It is, however, essential to note that individual contributors, crowdfunding and corporate sponsors are not permanent methods to maintain OSS. Another alternative is to open the software as its own startup then. Docker, for example, a company that helps software applications run inside containers, started as a project within dotCloud (a platform-as-a-service company). Docker, however, did so well that its founders decided to make it the company’s main focus. The project was outsourced in 2013 and went from making less than $10 million in 2014 to $180 million in 2016.
Big Tech and open source
Until the 1990s, companies made sure to guard their code, and the open-source initiative was thought to be this ‘big tech battler’. In addition to using external open source codes for their work, many large companies today both fund and develop their own open-source libraries. Facebook recently made its most extensive language library available for free to help developers make better translation models. Opening up, however, makes a lot more sense for Big Tech. These projects for open source helps build the company’s image in developer circuits and thus incentivises these developers to use other company resources for their work. It also allows companies to crowdsource improvements. Such improvements could make the company even more influential.
Why should you care about maintaining open source?
Open source code might be free, but ignoring its maintenance can prove very expensive. Nadia Eghbal describes these as direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include direct security concerns such as undetected bugs and vulnerabilities. Many open-source projects are not created and maintained by companies that offer support, such as actively patching flaws or paying for audits. Larger organisations that provide open source code still deploy mechanisms like scanning code for vulnerabilities and fixing them in the project’s entirety. But smaller projects and firms do not enjoy this protection. In an ironic twist, the earlier mentioned democratisation of coding has also led to developers with significantly varied skill sets. Many newly trained programmers wish to test their code but do not yet know how to secure it.
Indirect costs comprise longer-term maintenance costs such as loss of qualified labour and slower growth and innovation. The loss of skilled labour stems from the lack of compensation in many open source projects or volunteers not having time (due to other commitments). This can lead to direct costs for the software. For example, in 2013, a vulnerability was detected in RubyGems.org but was exploited before the group of volunteers taking care of the platform could actually get to discussing it. Following this, the entire server had to be built from scratch.
As per Prashanth Kaddi, Partner at Deloitte India, ‘Open source data analytics offerings have managed to gain greater mindshare in the newer crops of academics, researchers, and developers due to ease of accessibility, faster release upgrades, the support of sprawling online communities, and ease of integration with popular cloud providers.’ It is, therefore, necessary to understand the importance of maintaining open-source software. With the open-source ecosystem becoming increasingly complex, ignoring these vital platforms will only make maintaining them more complicated in the future. Open source code is here to stay—here’s hoping its future involves improved security and reliability!