Companies: fund work that isn’t new development

Coins spilling onto a table from a sideways jar.

The Harvard Business School recently shared a working paper titled “The Value of Open Source Software.” In this paper, Manuel Hoffman and colleagues set out to assess the economic value — both supply- and demand-side — of open source software. The conclusion? “The supply-side value of widely-used OSS is $4.15 billion, but that the demand-side value [replacement value for each firm that uses the software] is much larger at $8.8 trillion. We find that firms would need to spend 3.5 times more on software than they currently do if OSS did not exist.”

Around the same time I saw this paper, Jonathan Corbet published an LWN article about “the things nobody wants to pay for.” Citing several large open source projects, Corbet argues that most corporate investment is narrowly-focused. A company may fund (directly or by providing developer time) new features to meet their immediate need, but not the project more generally.

They will happily pay to develop a driver for a hardware product, but they are less interested in supporting the maintainership and review that are needed to integrate that driver, the development of the subsystem into which the driver fits, or the support the driver will need over the years. Companies pay for thousands of developers to work on the kernel, but none pays for a single technical writer to create documentation. Work that is not seen as contributing to short-term revenue tends not to get much attention in the corporate world.

Jonathan Corbet

Open source software needs more than just new code. It needs a healthy community. Communities don’t just naturally form and stay healthy; they require active attention. A garden is more productive and sustainable when it is tended to. Communities are the same way.

On Mastodon, I said “we need to frame this as ‘failing to invest in your upstream projects presents a large business risk’.” Companies can’t just throw some code at a project and call it a day if they want the project to be around long-term. The potential of a 3.5-fold increase in software expenses would make any CFO lose sleep. So companies need to make sure they have developers helping to maintain the software they depend on. But not just that. Projects need marketing, documentation, financial support, and more. These are things that a company can help provide, if it tries.

Of course, this also requires that open source is seen as a strategic business input, not just an engineering activity. A cross-functional open source program office (OSPO) can help build that case internally. If you want to know more, check out VM Brasseur’s “Business Success with Open Source” (currently in beta).

This post’s featured photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash.

Ben works on open source strategy at Docker and was previously the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.

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