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The dot-io boom, or how open source projects are breeding startups

You may remember that some months ago I stopped updating the blog. Part of it was a technical problem of having the content on Typo (for more than a few reasons), part of it was disappointed in the current free software and open source scene. I vented this disappointed to the people over at FSFE that and they suggested I should have gone to the yearly meeting in Berlin to talk about them, but I was otherwise engaged, and I really felt I needed to withdraw from the scene for a while to think things over.

Open source and free software have, over the years, attracted people for widely different reasons. In the beginning, it was probably mostly the ethics, it also attracted tinkerers and hackers of course. I was attracted to it as an user because I liked tinkering, but as a developer because I was hoping it would lead me to find a good job. You can judge me if you want, but growing up in a blue collar family, finding a good job was actually something I was taught to be always mindful of. And it’s not fair, but I had the skills and time (and lack of extreme pressure to find said job) that I managed to spend a significant amount of time on free software development.

I went to a technical school, and the default career out of it when I joined was working for a fairly big insurance company, whose headquarters were (and as far as I know still are) not far from where I grew up. Ending up at the Italian telco (Telecom Italia) was considered a huge score — this was a time before university was considered mandatory to do anything at all wherever you wanted to go (not that I think that’s the case now).

My hopes were to find something better: originally, that meant hoping to move to a slightly bigger city (Padua) and work at Sun Microsystems, that happened to have a local branch. And it seemed like the open source would get you noticed. Of course at the end I ended up slightly more North than I planned – in Ireland – and Sun is gone replaced by a much bigger corporation that, well, let’s just say does not interest me at all.

Was open source needed for me to get where I am? Probably yes, if nothing else because it made me grow more than anything else I could have done otherwise. I see many of my classmates, who even after going to university ended up in the same insurance company, or at the local telco, or one of the many big consultancy companies. The latter is the group that tends to be the most miserable. On the other hand I also have colleagues at my current company who came from the same year of the same high school as me — except they went on to university, while I didn’t. I’m not sure who got the better deal but we’re all happy, mostly.

What I see right now though, and that worries a bit, is that many people see open source as a way to jump-start a startup. And that is perfectly okay if that’s how you present yourself, but it is disingenuous when you effectively hide behind open-source projects to either avoid scrutiny or to make yourself more appealing, and what you end up with is a fake open source project which probably is not free software in the license, and easily so even in the spirit.

I have complained before about a certain project, that decided to refuse my offer to work on a shared format specification because they thought a single contributor not part of their core team can leave the scene at any moment. Even leaving aside the fact that I probably maintained open-source code for more than they were active on said scene, this is quite the stance. Indeed when I suggested this format is needed, their answer was that they are already working on that behind closed doors together with vendors. Given how they rebranded themselves from a diabetes management software to a quantified self tool, I assume their talks with vendor went just as about everybody expected.

But that was already just a final straw; the project itself was supposedly open-source, but beside for the obvious build or typo fixes, their open source repository only had internal contributions. I’m not sure if it was because they didn’t want to accept external contributions or because the possible contributors were turned down by CLA requirements or something like that, it’s not really something I cared enough to look into. In addition to the open source repository, though, most of the service was closed-source, making it nearly impossible to leverage in a free way.

My impression at this point is that whereas before your average “hacker” would be mostly looking to publish whatever they were working on as an open source project, possibly to use it as a ticket to find a job (either because of skill or being paid to maintain the software), nowadays any side project is a chance to a startup… whether a business plan is available for it or not.

And because you want at some point to make money, if you are a startup, you need to have at least some plan B, some reserve on the code, that makes your startup itself valuable, at least to a point. And that usually makes for poor open source contributions as noticed above, and as, good timing, CyanogenMod turned out to be. Similar things have happened and keep happening over time with OpenWRT too, although that one probably already went through the phase of startup-importance into a more community-driven project, although clearly not a mature enough one.

So here it is, I’m grumpy and old at this point, but I think a lot of us in the free software and open source world should do better to consider the importance of maintaining community projects as such, and avoid hiding targets of “startupizzation”, rather than just caring about firmware lock-in and “tivoization.” I wish I had a solution to this but I really don’t, I can only rant, at least for now.

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