Remember when open source was fun?

Much of the conversation about the sustainability of open source has revolved around how to ensure VC-backed companies can turn millions in investment into hundreds of millions in return. But talking with early pioneers of open source projects like Curl, Fio, and Wireshark, it’s clear that a critical component is missing from such conversations: fun.

In canvassing the industry for the stories behind important but perhaps not well-known open source projects, it has surprised me just how many of these projects are developed for personal satisfaction, regardless of the impact on these developers’ bank accounts.

Drupal for fun

Not that open source can’t pay big (financial) dividends. Just ask Dries Buytaert, founder of Drupal, a hugely popular web content management system, as well as Acquia, which offers Drupal-related services. In 2019 Acquia passed $200 million in revenue, which is a lot of money for something you can download for free. Nor is Acquia the only company making money from Drupal. Despite Buytaert’s central importance to the Drupal project, Acquia contributes less than 5 percent of the total Drupal code, with thousands of other companies contributing (and building businesses around Drupal).

Which, of course, Buytaert never could have imagined when he and a fellow student launched Drupal in 2000 while studying at the University of Antwerp.

At that time, Buytaert just needed to build a tiny website so friends could share information related to a broadband line they shared. Upon graduation in January 2001 Buytaert decided to open source the code, in part to allow others to make the improvements they kept asking him to make. But also to learn, as he related in an interview. With the launch of MySQL, “all of a sudden we had an open source database and it made building dynamic websites so much better. For me, the initial trigger [for developing Drupal] was a passion for websites in the early days of the web and a desire to explore PHP in MySQL and seeing that as a learning opportunity.”

For the first seven years of Drupal’s existence, Buytaert says, “It was just what I did at night or on the weekends” after school or work. “It was for fun. And it’s still a lot of fun.”

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