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Open source: A hardy few do all the work

Where are Google and IBM when you need them?

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A census of open source developers has provided a sharp reminder of the necessity of commercially viable open source companies, and also how important it is that commercially viable open source companies employ good people to write open source.

This probably isn't news to Reg readers, for whom it might be bleeding obvious - perhaps even tautological. But out in the worlds of academia and policy wonkery, the myth that F/OSS development is some kind of happy, Kumbaya potlatch still persists.

The survey by Dave Neary, Gimp developer, looks at eight years of contributions to the Gnome Project. It shows a large "head" and a long "tail". Out of 468,000 changes committed, 65 per cent were made by the top five per cent of developers (165). This again isn't so surprising, since the most prolific are project maintainers. 11 of the top 19 maintainers work for Red Hat, two for Collabora, one for Novell, and one for Intel. 70 per cent of developers surveyed work in their own time - indeed, two of the top five, Kjartan Maraas and Christian Persch, contribute to Gnome in their own time.

Where, you may wonder, are the contributions from the largest and most vocal multinationals? Google, IBM, HP, Sun (now subsumed into Oracle) and Nokia have all touted the benefits of open source, depend on it strategically and profit from it handsomely. But they contribute little.

Nor does Canonical, which has earned the company some criticism. This may be a little unfair - Canonical's contribution is one of packaging, and attempting to broaden the appeal by improving the user experience (UX). And UX work is as much about throwing stuff out as adding it in. This is a perspective that's been conspicuously lacking, is very welcome and seems to be working: in a couple of years Canonical has made more progress than in the last decade (helped of course by the KDE implosion).

But as I was reminded by Adam Williamson of Mandrake recently as I ran through a list of Ubuntu features I liked, none of them were 'Ubuntu' features at all, but low-level contributions made (typically) by Red Hat employees. Software doesn't appear by magic - and very little of a modern, large and impressive Linux distro would work at all if it wasn't for a small handful of contributors.

This leaves F/OSS in a far more precarious position than it should be. Red Hat's gross revenue in fiscal year 2010 was $748m, and profits have always been razor thin. In six weeks Google earns more in profits than Red Hat does in revenue for a year. Should these multinationals be compelled - through contract or shaming - to do it a bit more?

You can download the Gnome Census here. ®

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