Open Source Doesn't Need Billionaires

by Ostatic Staff - May. 09, 2008

Andy Patrizio, over at, is trotting out that tired old question once again: "where are the open source billionaires?" as if that was somehow relevant or necessary for open source to be worthwhile. Patrizio also suggests that open source is being carried by large vendors, but doesn't seem to grasp the benefits that the vendors are getting out of open source.

The topic came up Monday at the CommunityOne conference, and Patrizio dutifully takes the bait with the claim that "the open source community is living off mom and dad" because vendors like Google, IBM, Sun, HP (and I might add Novell, though Patrizio leaves the second-largest recognized kernel contributor off the list...) foot the bill for much of the open source development.

What Patrizio leaves out is that all of these companies also consume vast quantities of open source software. They've done some great things for open source, but it's not like IBM is putting money into open source out of the goodness of its big blue corporate heart.

Move out of mom and dad's house? Sorry, wrong analogy -- open source is Google's house.

I don't think Patrizio has done his homework. If you look at the numbers Red Hat is at the top of the list for kernel contributions with 11.2% of the changes in the last kernel, Novell comes in second with 8.9%, and then IBM with 8.3%. Check out the entire list -- it's very interesting.

What's really interesting is that a huge chunk of contributions are not identified with any major vendor. 13.9% of kernel changes in the last tracked kernel are not doing so on behalf of an employer. 12.9% of contributions are not identified by employer, so about 27% of the work on the kernel that's being done is being done by volunteers or people who don't have to identify their employer when contributing.

Google, which Patrizio gives credit to as a major contributor, comes in with only 1.1% of kernel contributions -- and I'd be willing to wager Google has more Linux boxes in production than just about any company on the planet.

Of course, the kernel isn't the only piece of the puzzle. IBM contributes in a big way to Apache, which is useful to IBM because it uses Apache in its Websphere offering.

Google is slipping the Mozilla Foundation quite a few bucks to make sure there's a competitive offering to IE in the market. This isn't an example of "living in mom and dad's house," it's an example of large companies being smart and leveraging a development model that benefits everybody.

And, if Patrizio had done his homework, he'd have seen that -- even with Google fronting Mozilla a boatload of cash -- Mozilla only employs about 50 of 1,000 code contributors to Mozilla. I'm sure the 50 employees on Moz staff are doing quite a lot of the work -- but Google can only take so much credit for the effort, and the company does receive a benefit out of making Google the default search engine with Firefox.

Show me the money, or don't...

The suggestion that open source is somehow failing or immature because we don't have any billionaires is a ridiculous proposition. Maybe someone will manage to cash in really big on open source, but if that doesn't happen, that's hardly a failure of the model.

The benefits of open source, like the development work, are spread out over many more people and companies. I can't speak for the entire industry, but I'd rather see an open source project create jobs for hundreds of people rather than making one billionaire.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier works for Novell as the openSUSE Community Manager.