When Free Fails the Doers, the Dreamers, and the Disillusioned

February 17, 2019

My team and I worked for several “open source software companies,” before I decide to hang up my Delta Million Mile Club name tag. (Weird red tags those puppies are.)

I read “Free Labor of Open Source Developers. Is That Sustainable?” The question caused me to chuckle. The answer is fairly straightforward.

Nope. Not for individuals. For outfits like Amazon, yep.

Under specific conditions, open source software does “work”. Now “does work” translates as “makes money, delivers fame, and/or makes those participating [a] happy, [b] feel like the effort is sticking it to the “man”, [c] proves that a person can actually write code which mostly works, and/or [d] builds a psychic bond with a community.

Some big companies do the open source “give back” and “contribution” and “support” dance. For these outfits, open source software is a part of a business model. Usually the practitioners of this type of marketing and sales offer for-fee widgets, add ins, and digital gizmos. Then the customer who downloads and uses the open source code has the opportunity to use the software and [a] buy engineering services, [b] buy training, [c] pay for “enhanced support,” and/or [d] attend conferences for insiders. I find Microsoft’s embrace of open source amusing.

For individuals, a pet project can provide satisfaction and a job maybe.

The write up does a good job of explaining the idealistic roots of open source software. I must admit, however, that I do not drink alcohol, so the analogy “like free beer” does not make any sense to me. The roots of open source software seem to be anchored in a desire to have software which did not [a] cost money to use, [b] could be modified; that is, not put the users in handcuffs, and [c] was updated on a calendar often wildly out of sync with the needs of the licensees. Proprietary software meant “bad” and the new open source software meant good with hints of revolution and “I just can’t take proprietary software anymore.”

The write up reviews a popular paper about the economics of open source software. I did not spot a reference to a later study which suggested that large companies were the biggest adopters of open source.* If that research were correct, the reason boils down to [a] big companies want to trim their costs for proprietary software’s license fees, mandatory upgrades, mandatory maintenance, and contractual limits on what changes a licensee of proprietary software can make. The researchers pointed out that large companies had [a] the staff and [b] the money to make open source software work for their use cases.

Flash forward to 2016. The Ford Foundation’s Roads and Bridges** makes clear that software development performed for free has a built in flaw. Developers can quit. Dead end? Maybe. Large companies can step in and embrace the project and, of course, the community. Outfits using this method range from the Amazons to the smaller firms which allow employees to work on projects. The open source approach can be overwhelmed or a victim of abandonment.

I am not sure I am convinced that the open source community exists. There are factions and many of them are at war. Consider Lucene/Solr’s contentious history. I also am not keen on the simile comparing open source to a religious community. Once again there are fanatics, and there are those whom the fanatics would like to either [a] imagine roasting in hell or [b] actually burning alive after a presentation at an open source meet up.

Net net: Amazon has crafted a new chapter in the lock in playbook. The approach borrows from IBM’s FUD to the more New Age methods of being famous and getting a “real” job.

If you are tracking the world of open source software, the write up is a useful addition to one’s library of analyses. One suggestion: Keep in mind that “free” open source software is a lure in certain circumstances. Think of it as a form of digital phishing, particularly for marketing oriented outfits.

Stephen E Arnold, February 17, 2019



* Diomidis Spinellis and Vaggelis Giannikas, “Organizational Adoption of Open Source Software,” Journal of Systems and Software, March 2012, page 666-682, and Stephen E Arnold’s The New Landscape of Search, June 2011.

** See https://www.fordfoundation.org/about/library/reports-and-studies/roads-and-bridges-the-unseen-labor-behind-our-digital-infrastructure


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