Individuals, Not Institutions, Contribute Most to Open Source Projects

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 17, 2009

There was an interesting write up on this week discussing who contributes most to open source projects -- and why. Even though many open source projects have a commercial or institutional component that contributes some degree of direction (or funding) to software development, and even though many businesses and institutions use open source software regularly, the vast majority of contributions to these projects come from individuals.

Forbes' Dan Woods, after hearing Alfresco's Matt Asay and Eclipse's Ian Skerrett speak of this contributor gap, concluded that there must be something very different about how institutions contribute.

While having any individual who uses an application (regardless of his affiliation with a company) contribute in some way is the preferred scenario, this disparity isn't necessarily damaging to an open source project. An individual submits a bug report, or contributes code to a project, but the project itself is a group of individuals bound by a common interest. Scientific studies have shown that groups are better at solving complex problems than individuals.

It might not be damaging, but again, having a percentage of the userbase not giving any sort of input is worrisome (especially if there's support revenue involved). Is the software perfect as it is? Are these users getting what they need or want from the software now? If these users aren't contributing, how likely will they be to continue using the software if the contributions given by others don't mesh with their future needs?

Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, openSUSE community manager, tells Woods that when institutions participate in open source projects, they often do so to meet a specific need. It's logical, of course, and it's still very valuable. If one company contributes code to add or extend a program's capabilities, it's not a stretch to imagine other companies (even the contributing company's competition) wouldn't find the addition useful -- even if the application's "casual" users never need the functionality.

Brockmeier also mentions that it's hard to truly "institutionalize" an open source project. Contributors come from all over, and the right to contribute to a project depends less on affiliation with a corporate entity than it does on how much the contributor can offer in terms of skill and commitment.

Skerrett wonders if it's something along the lines (and I paraphrase here) that institutional settings aren't so good at encouraging people to share. I think this is a good point. Certainly, with open licenses, there are rules concerning how companies distribute and share the code they create. Some companies might discourage contributions in an effort to protect business secrets, but I'd wonder if there's an equal amount of "we never really thought about encouraging contributions" at play here. It would seem businesses could be quite active (and not divulge trade secrets) in contributing bug reports, fixes, and generic enhancements. This might be such a foreign way of thinking, warming to it could take some time.

Groups might be great at tackling problems, and individuals better at contributing for completely (or not-at-all) altruistic reasons. The open source way gets the best of both worlds -- the contributions of individuals and the combined brainpower of a group. Companies have much to gain from -- and give to -- this approach. The hard part is showing companies that a cycle of giving could well start an infinite loop of "gains" in motion.