As Goes the Economy, So Goes Open Source?

I’ve heard the future of Open Source during a recession debated quite a few times recently. It’s a pretty hot topic now, what with the downturn in full effect.

Andrew Keen, the author of “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture”, blogged (irony noted) his thoughts earlier in the week. They boil down to:

When, in 50 years time, the definitive histories of the Web 2.0 epoch are written, historians will look back at the open-source mania between 2000 and 2008 with a mixture of incredulity and amusement.

I also enjoyed this passage:

So how will today’s brutal economic climate change the Web 2.0 “free” economy? It will result in the rise of online media businesses that reward their contributors with cash; it will mean the success of Knol over Wikipedia, Mahalo over Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), over the, iTunes over MySpace, Hulu over YouTube Inc. , over, TechCrunch over the blogosphere, CNN’s professional journalism over CNN’s iReporter citizen-journalism.

Wow. I don’t know where to begin. It does seems odd to offer up the stock quote of a company you’re saying won’t survive, but I guess that’s to help would-be investors avoid Google, in case they didn’t know its symbol.

It almost seems like flame/linkbait, but would Keen stoop to a tactic that is, in part, killing our culture?

Keen bundles Web 2.0 and Open Source, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, since one is free as in beer, while the other is free as in speech. For more on the difference, read here. There are other problems with his argument, but at the core is the salient point that most people who think Open Source will suffer make:

Unemployed developers won’t continue to contribute to Open Source projects because they need to eat. Or something like that.

This is a crock. If anything, I expect Open Source projects to thrive as developers spend more, not less, time contributing. Sound counterintuitive?

Here are my thoughts.

Skills to Pay the Bills
Developers possess skills that translate into their livelihood. They won’t sit still and stagnate while unemployed.

Do professional athletes stop training when they’re cut? No, they stay in shape waiting for a call because every day their skills erode, they become less attractive to new employers.

What better way to learn more or learn something new than through Open Source. Many rockstar developers got their rockstar status working on Open Source projects.

There aren’t many ways to get the adoration of your peers when no one can bask in the glory of your code-fu. Open Source projects expose you to a wider audience, allowing you to network and audition all at once.

Nervous Energy
Most developers (and yes, I know a few) have a desire to solve problems and build stuff with software. I doubt that serious developers will lose the desire just because they lost a job.

In fact, my bet is that developers who coded in closed source while being paid will migrate to Open Source to scratch the itch for problem-solving, thereby making the project stronger and allowing the developer to learn a new skill.

Lots of developers have told me they wanted to learn new stuff like Rails, but didn’t have the time. Well, given time and a project, they would learn.

Ever Heard of Linux?
A common assumption about Open Source is that free means no cost, and therefore there is no money to be made. This is false. My guess is that Andrew Keen’s blog is hosted on a Linux box in a rack at some host that charge money for their service.

Lots of businesses use Linux to run their operations and development, and some even sell the O/S (RedHat?), despite the fact that the source is open.

Your Take?
This is a hot topic for discussion now, as layoffs pile up at tech companies. One thing that isn’t entirely clear is what skills are being made redundant? Just because a tech company lays off some people, doesn’t mean those people are developers.

In fact, developers are usually safe (relatively speaking) in tough times because they build the product that supposedly keeps the company in business.

Beyond sheer numbers, it’s funny to hear Web 2.0 and Open Source grouped together; Open Source existed long before the first so-called Web 2.0 companies started. You could make the argument that Open Source inflated the Web 2.0 bubble, since many of these companies used the LAMP stack to get started.

Anyway, Open Source isn’t going anywhere; it’ll be around when the histories are written. In fact, those historian will probably use a wiki or maybe OpenOffice.

What do you think about how Open Source will do during the downturn? Sound off in the comments.




  1. Yeah, agreed.

    I read somewhere that a large percentage of Open Source now comes from big companies like Sun who support large projects like MySQL, VirtualBox, etc.

    Most of those developers would keep committing, even if they left, and many have.

    Not to mention that Web 2.0 and Open Source aren't equivalent and never will be. Lots of issues with Keen's post.

  2. Maybe I'm missing something here, but it's tough for me to buy into a train of thought that intermingles Web 2.0 and Open Source indiscriminately. That being said, I'll play anyway and share the idea that my take on the fate of both is actually stronger in a down economy.

    Most organizations sink a huge chunk of their dollars into maintenance for both development environments and enterprise apps. But Open Source gives users a chance to manage maintenance differently. Rather than writing a huge check for support that you may not need, you can opt to self-support with Open Source. If Open Source doesn't work, there is a great variety of arrangements available in the Open Source space (for example, contract with an expert or possibly the software distributor). Most of the available options are less cost than the typical support contract in the closed source space. In a time when companies are looking to cut costs, Open Source can look pretty good.

    Web 2.0? In the 80s and 90s, synergy was a pretty groovy word used to describe the good results that come from getting good minds together. Web 2.0 is a natural evolution of that synergy thing. As companies and other organizations face the pressure of tough times and look for “out-of-the-box thinking”, bringing disparate groups of people together will be a great source for doing so. Web 2.0 is the means by which we can bring those people together.

    The upshot to this rather long-winded comment (sorry Jake)? The economic downturn is not a death knell for Open Source or Web 2.0. In fact, I expect that the momentum for both will build as the downturn deepens.

  3. Thanks Floyd. I tried to stay away from a pure editorial post, but you and I are on the same page. 1) Web 2.0 != Open Source, 2) Open Source wins during a downturn.

    Keen comes off as a n00b, which buries any real points he may have, but I'm sure his points sound obvious to most people who don't get Open Source and only use a computer to watch YouTube.

    I did enjoy the Mahalo wins over Google bit. Because human editors of the Intertubes are cheaper in a downturn, or something, never mind the sunk cost and established dominance of Google. Funny.

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