Why a company pays developers to write more open source code


Tidelift’s model may hold the key to getting more open source software written and supported.

There has never been a better time to be a developer, with an assortment of innovative, free open source software and innovative, inexpensive cloud “hardware” at your fingertips. Whether creating software to use or sell, developers have turned to open source, with Forrester Research claiming that only 10-20% of new code in apps is proprietary. Yes really.

While this is great, it also overlooks an impending problem: Not all open source software is created equal. Or rather, not all open source software is maintained the same. While some projects, such as Linux, are provided by big vendors like Red Hat to ensure disparate components are polished and up to date, a new wave of software like, for example, React can depend on hundreds or thousands of components. , without anyone bothering to make sure they are secure, up to date, etc.

This is potentially a big problem. Or, as Tidelift sees it, a big opportunity.

A red hat for the crowded masses

The blessing and the curse of open source is community. While this is primarily a blessing, there is always the risk that someone will leave the community, leaving behind an unsupported project that may well be a component of a larger project. While open source now has a multitude of companies competing to support one or another project (eg, Confluent for Kafka, Red Hat for Linux, etc.), many projects do not get this level of support.

SEE: How to become a developer: checklist (TechRepublic)

We also can’t blame the individual developers behind these under-sustained projects. Open source is often a labor of love, but love doesn’t pay a mortgage. Tidelift, started by several former Red Hat veterans including Donald Fischer and Havoc Pennington, steps in to pay developers to increase their level of support and maintenance for projects that would otherwise be at risk. As the company described on its site, “Those who create and maintain open source software are rewarded for their efforts – and those who use their creations get more reliable software.”

For example, Tidelift just contracted maintainer Sindre Sorhus to provide insurance for some of the most widely used packages among the 1,100+ in the npm ecosystem, including Chalk JS, camelCase, Strip-ansi, and more. For a business that uses Chalk JS, purchasing a Tidelift subscription makes sense because it gives them confidence that the code they use will be well maintained, Red Hat style. For the developers behind these open source packages, Tidelift keeps track of their code usage and pays them accordingly.

It’s a win-win solution for open source developers and the businesses that love them.

Charge for open source

On a large scale, the Tidelift model looks golden to me. While we’re inundated with fantastic open source code, the ways we get that code aren’t always ideal. Sometimes good code (like Google’s Kubernetes) stems from a company’s self-interest. Sometimes it starts with a developer scratching a personal itch, so to speak, evolves into a startup or a long-standing passion (or both). All too often, however, the question of how to finance great open source software hampers the development of that software.

SEE: Software License Policy (Tech Pro Research)

Take Henry Zhu. A former colleague of mine at Adobe, Zhu took over the development and maintenance of the popular Babel, a JavaScript compiler “used to convert ECMAScript 2015+ code to a backward compatible version of JavaScript in current and legacy browsers or environments.” according to its website. While Zhu could spend half of his paid time working on Babel, he wanted to work there full time. The problem, however, is that to do this it depends on contributions, as noted on its Patreon page. Hope this will continue to work for him, but it’s not an ideal way to support the efforts of someone who is working on something that matters so much to so many people (and companies).

Tidelift’s approach seems superior to me because it appeals to the money-hungry self-interest of businesses: if they want great software that isn’t going to crack, they can pay to make sure the open source software on which they depend remains in good condition – maintained. Meanwhile, they might not care that a developer somewhere can now pay off her mortgage, but she certainly does, freeing up her time (maybe all of her time at one point) to work on the code. that she likes.

It’s a great way to make open source sustainable. It’s Red Hat for the rest of us.

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Image: iStockphoto / gorodenkoff


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