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December 5, 2019

Open Source Still Rolling, But Roadblocks Loom


The percentage of developers actively participating in open source projects is up 8% from last year, according to a survey by DigitalOcean. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, the outlook for open source is not entirely rosy, as one-third of developers surveyed expressed doubts about the sustainability of open source.

Open source has had a huge impact on the history of information technology and software. Since the original AT&T Unix was developed at Bell Labs nearly 50 years, open source has provided an accelerant to IT’s evolution, culminating in the Cambrian Explosion of projects like Apache Hadoop and Apache Kafka and machine learning projects like TensorFlow and PyTorch. Without open source, IT, the Internet, and big data would look decidedly different.

The breadth and depth of the open source software movement is practically unfathomable. According to DigitalOcean, which provides a cloud platform for developers, more than 30 million developers have contributed to open source projects at some point in their careers. The majority of developers around the world use open source software, as do most companies, other surveys have found.

With that kind of momentum, open source would seem to be an unstoppable force, and that’s reflected in DigitalOcean’s survey of 5,800 developers around the world. The company found that 60% of developers report an increased level of participation in open source projects in 2019, compared to just 14% who said their participation decreased over the past year. What’s more, 84% of developers feel optimistic about the future of open source, compared to just 16% who don’t feel that way, the survey found.

But it’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows when it comes to open source. The survey found that 32% of respondents “were unsure if open source tech was sustainable as it exists today,” compared to 64% who think it is sustainable in its current form. A lack of funding, a lack of sponsorship by large organizations, and the need for more participation were the three leading factors cited by those questioning open source’s sustainability.

“How would you describe the involvement of major players in tech with open source technology (Source: DigitalOceans Currents)

These figures jibe with the observations of Travis Oliphant, who has been an instrumental figure in the Python data science community. According to Oliphant, there are fewer than five people in the world who are paid to maintain SciPy, NumPy, and Scikit-learn (the number is actually four-and-a-half). Considering how many millions of developers rely on those three open source projects to complete their work, it’s rather amazing that so few people are paid to maintain it in a professional manner.

“The real problem is funding,” Oliphant said during a keynote address in Mountain View, California in October. “It’s too important to be left to volunteer time.”

Oliphant is addressing the problem with his latest venture, Quansight, which is aiming to “support the open source data economy by connecting the people and organizations who participate in creating value from data.” The company has so far attracted attention from companies like TDK, Wells Fargo, Facebook, according to its website.

Slicing and dicing the survey data further suggests possible future states for open source. Younger people, DigitalOcean found, are more likely to be contributors to open source, as opposed to just consuming the software. Gen Z and Millennial cohorts are also more bullish on a bright future for open source. People 45 years and older were likely to list “lack of interest” as a reason for decreased participation in open source, “signaling that much of the growth of the [open source] community may depend on future generations of developers,” DigitalOcean said.

Among the 14% whose participation in open source projects declined, Digital Ocean found that U.S.-based developers were most likely to list burnout as the reason for the change. Interestingly, Indians are more engaging and supportive of open source across the board than their American colleagues.

But those from India were the least trusting of big technology firms when it comes to open source. Overall, 51% of survey respondents said they were concerned with big tech’s involvement, citing “self-serving” and restrictive licensing as the biggest concerns. Only 24% said they were unconcerned about big tech, reasoning that they “provide for the open source community,” and have good motivations and deliver, the survey said.

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