Open source should learn from Linux, not MySQL

There has been a lot of talk about open source sustainability over the past few years, and for good reason. Open source now powers much of the world’s most critical new technologies, from programming languages and application platforms to machine learning and data infrastructure. As such, we need more, not less, open source innovation. However, the most innovative and sustainable open source rarely depends exclusively upon a single individual or company.

Don’t believe me? Look at some of the most foundational open source projects of the past few decades. Linux? Scads of companies contribute. Or consider PostgreSQL, which has boomed in popularity over the past decade—it’s a true community effort, with contributors from a wide array of companies. Or how about the more recent Kubernetes? Though Google founded the project, many more companies contribute to it today.

This is how open source was always meant to work—open source founded on an abundance mindset, rather than one of scarcity.

Learning from Linux

Way back in 2007 I was writing about this idea of abundance-driven business models. Speaking of Red Hat, I wrote, “The bits are free or abundant, but the service around them is not. Red Hat therefore wins the more that it and others give software away for free, because this leads to a greater need for its role as a gatekeeper on quality and stability.”

Red Hat’s model was (and is) to offer a certified “distribution” of that open source software that was freely available, but somewhat unwieldy without Red Hat’s efforts to harden and test the code in a certain configuration (along with all of the software and hardware certifications that go with it).

Importantly, Red Hat’s model doesn’t really work if Red Hat were to magically own all of Linux development. Red Hat’s model depends on open source abundance. As of the Linux Foundation’s 2017 report on contributions to the Linux kernel, Red Hat accounted for just 7.2% of all Linux development (for the later Linux 5.5 kernel, the number is 6.6%). In Red Hat’s last full fiscal year before being acquired by IBM, that 6.6% contribution translated into $3.4 billion in revenue.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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