Open source is a no-man’s land. Since its release in the 1990s, the concept has a rich history among the big tech. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple have been an active part of the collaborative community. Over the years, they have contributed as well as gained a ton.
The leading contributor in the field is Google and has a different approach than its competitors. In December 2022, the Pichai-led firm announced a total of 1,054 contributors.
Back in its early days, around 1998, Google was using open source just like any other budding company. While Google abided by licences, they struggled to give back much due to several reasons. Marc Merlin, who worked as an engineer at Google for over two decades said, “Some of it was just run fast and make sure that we have money next month to pay everyone’s salary”.
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Later in 2019, Google invested a million dollars in open source research, partnering with researchers at UVM, to understand how people, teams and organisations thrive in technology-rich settings, especially in open-source projects and communities. Earlier, in 2014, Google didn’t just open source Kubernetes, it donated it to the Cloud Native Computing foundation—one of the biggest players and advocates of open source software development. In addition, in 2008, Google released the first version of Android, the most used mobile operating system today.
Furthermore, Google is betting big on artificial intelligence. Internally, the researchers were using deep learning neural networks for the Google Brain project. ‘DistBelief’ was a critical component that the company decided to open source in 2015, which went on to become TensorFlow. Today, the framework has become an essential tool in the developer ecosystem competing with Meta AI’s ‘PyTorch’.
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As per research, tech companies’ leading code repository on GitHub has multiplied four-fold in the past six years. Google singlehandedly had a 21% year-on-year rise in monthly commits and overtook Microsoft with the most contributors.
Rejected Then Embraced
Today, even Microsoft has an open source strategy—a company that once compared open source to cancer.
Microsoft and Apple were founded in the 1970s. These for-profit companies were threatened by open source, or free softwares. To an extent that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates famously wrote an “Open Letter to Hobbyists”, asking to stop copying the company’s software. Eventually, the company realised the potential of open source software. The company now hosts Azure Open Source Day to exhibit its dedication towards the open source community and highlight the potential of those tools.
Read the key takeaways from Microsoft Azure Open-Source Day 2023 here.
In 2018, the software giant acquired GitHub, a central platform for source code development for $7.5 billion. At that time, the platform had a user base of 28 million developers. The tech giant has been under suspicion from the open source community after it launched Copilot which was “trained on tens of millions of public repositories” of code, including those on GitHub. The tool is an extension for Microsoft’s Visual Studio coding suite that auto-completes lines of code using an AI model called ‘Codex’.
Open Source Parasites
Talking about the iPhone maker, open source developers gladly celebrated the news of Apple open sourcing its popular Swift language. The attempt did not score brownie points for the company as programmers were unhappy with its “first major computer company to make Open Source a key part of its strategy” claim.
Historically, Apple was the first major company to take advantage of open source. Apple’s software comes from open-source seeds but the company’s developers hardly contribute back. The prime example is the OS X based on Darwin, a BSD Unix. Instead of promoting Darwin and releasing all of the code at once, Apple took its own time to release the code in bits for each version of Mac OS X. For example, Apple released 10.11 “El Capitan”, on September 30, 2015, but the source code remains unavailable to date.
Apple has contributed to the community through LLVM, a set of reusable libraries with clear cut interfaces, and CUPS, an open source software that provides a printing layer for UNIX-based operating systems.
Amazon Keeping Up With The Community
Using the Open Source Contributor Index and GitHub commits, they also found that Amazon—despite lagging behind Google and Microsoft—had also witnessed a surge in open source commits thanks to their work on projects like OpenSearch.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) provides numerous open-source projects that it did not create. The products generate revenue in billions every year. It is not illegal but it isn’t conducive for open source communities.
In 1985, Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF), a foundation to support the free software movement. Within a few years, the term “open source” was coined and readily adopted largely by companies. In 2009, FSF wrote that it does not like the term ‘open source’ because it undermines the freedom associated with open software: “Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement,” the foundation stated in a blog post. The statement makes sense in the current context of Amazon since open source licence allows the tech giant to take software verbatim and sell it as a commercial product without contributing to the community.