Should More Employers Subsidize Open Source Development?

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 29, 2008

In a post today, Matt Asay considers whether governments could effectively subsidize open source development. I agree with his point that enterprises may "come to recognize that their failure to replenish open source communities with either cash or code may come to harm the code commons from which they derive increasing amounts of value." We've also had several people say in OStatic interviews, including Sam Ramji--Microsoft's open source chief--that open source needs better monetization models. In our latest interview,  with FreeNAS' founder, he says that "one of the best things for open source would be for our employers to give us time to work on our open source projects." Perhaps more employers should go beyond that.

Take a look at the chart below, from this post, showing companies that make the most contributions to the Linux kernel:

You're probably not surprised to see Red Hat and Novell up top, but some people may be surprised to see IBM, Intel and SGI contributing so much. The data in the chart comes from a survey done by the Linux Foundation, and includes an explanatory quote:

"Companies like IBM, Intel, SGI, MIPS, Freescale, HP, etc. are all working to ensure that Linux runs well on their hardware. That, in turn, makes their offerings more attractive to Linux users, resulting in increased sales."

The point is that whether the motivation is self-serving or not, big companies with deep pockets that have relatively small parts of their businesses in the Linux arena make big contributions to Linux. Linux is hardly the only example of this phenomenon.

Google is well known for its 80/20 rule, which allows its employees to spend 20 percent of their time on projects not directly related to their work at Google. This has been a huge part of how Google employees have delivered so many open tools and so much open code. The rule serves Google, too. They want you out at the Google Code site and using Google Gears.

While I don't think we'll ever see companies everywhere subsidizing employee development of open source tools, many tech and non-tech companies alike could benefit from subsidizing open source development from employees with talent. If more companies woke up to this idea, we'd see more purpose-driven, mission-critical open source software shared by firms in the same industries. That, ultimately, would benefit the companies providing the subsidies.