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Developing open source software

The developers of the open source software development community are responsible for developing open source software. In this chapter, learn more about the open source development community, the type of people that write open source software and whether or not developers are compensated for producing open source software.

Succeeding with Open Source
Chapter 1, The Source of Open Source


The developers of the open source software development community are responsible for developing open source software. In this chapter, learn more about the open source development community, the type of people that write open source software and whether or not developers are compensated for producing open source software.

Succeeding with Open Source, Chapter 1
Table of contents:
What is open source?
Developing open source software
Using open source software
Finding open source software

Developing open source software

Who Creates Open Source?

A consistent question regarding open source is, "Who writes open source software?" A second, often-unasked question is, "Why would anyone work on open source?" Many people don't understand why someone would program without financial compensation, because they view programming as unfulfilling drudgery. Alternatively, many people believe that open source developers must be students or unemployed, with an assumption that they work on open source in place of a real job.

This chapter from Succeeding with Open Source was reprinted with permission from Addison-Wesley.

 Who creates open source software and how they support their work on open source is, however, key for pragmatic users. IT organizations need to use software that will be available and supported for the long term—their software infrastructure must be "futureproof." Relying on software created by people who are uncommitted for the long term is too risky. After all, no IT organization wants to find that a key piece of technology is suddenly orphaned because the developers lost interest or had to "get a real job."

Of course, the availability of source code makes a product futureproof in some sense. Even if the developers end their involvement with an open source product, users have the source code itself to rely on for use in the future. This really isn't enough for most IT organizations, however. Almost all commercial enterprise software purchases come with source code escrow agreements, which make the product source available if the vendor goes out of business. IT organizations avoid doing business with vendors when they suspect the escrow conditions might come into play, however. IT organizations want working software, not a code base. Source code escrow arrangements are a last resort, not a procurement strategy.

Therefore, most IT organizations do not perceive the source availability of open source products as their path forward. Even those that work with source code want to contribute to ongoing product development rather than taking on sole responsibility for the product. Therefore, the question of who creates open source software remains key. Who are open source developers? Can they be relied on to create a long-lived product?

Fortunately, there is good information available about the open source development community. In 2002, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) carried out a large survey of the open source community in cooperation with SourceForge, an open source portal. They did this to better understand the potential of open source as well as how much risk is present for open source users. BCG contacted more than 1,500 randomly chosen open source developers with a Web-based survey and received more than 500 responses. The findings of the survey provided a snapshot of the open source development community; more important, the findings contradicted the assumptions many people have about open source developers. (The complete findings of the survey can be found at

Why Do Developers Work on Open Source?

BCG found that open source developers are motivated by intellectual curiosity and a desire to improve their skills. Many of them consider programming to have an aesthetic appeal, like poetry or music. For these developers, working on open source is far from a burden; it is a chance to do something they find personally fulfilling. In fact, a majority of them agreed that "when I program, I lose track of time" and that "with one more hour in the day, I would spend it programming." A large proportion of the respondents also felt a sense of personal accomplishment by working on open source.

With respect to the issue of risk being posed by the developers of a project abandoning it, a significant percentage believe that one of the requirements of working on open source is finding someone to take on the project if a developer leaves it. Developers begin contributing to an open source product out of a sense of interest and typically develop a personal stake in their work. For that reason, they are unlikely to abandon a product without seeing that someone else is ready to take over their role. Still, there is some risk that one or more members of the development team might walk away from a product, leaving users exposed.

What Are Open Source Developers Like?

To a large degree, open source developers reflect a trend that has been noted in many other professions: stronger identification with peer professionals than with organizations. An overwhelming majority—83 percent—agreed strongly or agreed somewhat with the statement, "Hackers are a primary community with which I identify." It should be noted that, in this context, hackers refers to very technically oriented individuals and not to people with malicious motivations.

The survey respondents were mostly between 20 and 30 years of age and 98 percent were male. They averaged 11 years of professional IT experience.

In terms of geographic location, North America is home to approximately 46 percent of open source developers, Europe accounts for about 42 percent of developers, and the remaining 12 percent are located in other areas of the world.

Interestingly, this distribution of developers does not match the distribution of open source users. About 24 percent of all downloads from SourceForge are from Internet domains located in the United States, with the remainder going to international domains. In terms of individual countries, page views (a proxy for downloads) identify the three heaviest user nations of SourceForge other than the United States as Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

How Do Open Source Developers Support Themselves?

This is the question implied in the second question listed at the start of this section: "Why would anyone work on something for free?" Two surprising results came out of the BCG survey:


  • A full 30 percent of those surveyed participate in open source development as part of their employment. These developers work in organizations that use open source products and they participate in the project to make the product work better for their employer's needs.


  • Well over 50 percent of those surveyed are professionally employed in technology organizations. About 20 percent of those surveyed are students, with 7 percent being academics, and 15 percent identified as "other."

    Therefore, most participants in open source development already work on technology. Their involvement in an open source project usually is in addition to their "real" job, motivated by skill development or the opportunity to work on an intellectually stimulating project. By no means are the participants only students or the unemployed.

    Although the majority of open source developers already have fulltime technology jobs, they devote a significant amount of time to their open source efforts. Volunteer participants (those who do not work on open source as part of their regular employment) contribute almost 6 hours per week to open source work, whereas those who are paid participants contribute a little more than 11 hours per week.

    Implications of the BCG Survey

    The BCG survey provides an excellent overview of the open source development world. Most open source developers are IT professionals who work on projects to improve their skills or for intellectual stimulation. Far from the stereotype of inexperienced or unemployable engineers, open source project developers have significant IT experience. They are usually employed in technology jobs and are unlikely to abandon a product and leave its users in the lurch. Open source developers have a strong commitment to the product and are reluctant to see its users harmed in any way. Consequently, the risk associated with using a product created by volunteers is probably not as high as many potential open source users believe.

    Continue to the next section: Using open source software

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