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AdBlock Plus: Open source for fun (not funds)

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One of Palant's original reasons for building Adblock Plus was to nudge people away from Internet Explorer to Firefox, noting that "the more people [that] use a modern browser, the better."

But his work has become much more driven by a desire to see an uncluttered, fast and open web.

Both developers have seen times when they lacked motivation or the time necessary to actively code the project. During those times, either others stepped in to fill the void or, in the case of Adblock Plus, the project simply went into maintenance mode for a time.

Contrast this with more actively sponsored projects like Linux. More than 70 per cent of Linux development is paid for by companies like Red Hat, Intel, IBM and others. Linux is so central to so many companies that there's little risk of a Kempf or Palant losing interest and moving on: there is no shortage of cash to fund an alternative developer (though this doesn't account for the loss in productivity that would happen if, say, a Linus Torvalds bailed out of the project).

I'm willing to bet that many developers on these big, sponsored projects like Linux would continue to contribute even if they weren't paid to do so. They, like Kempf and Palant, undoubtedly enjoy the work and feel that they're making a difference. The salary is just a bonus.

But actually it's much more than that. As seen in research done on GNOME contributions, paid developers tend to develop and maintain more critical parts of an open-source project. Why? Because they can afford to; they're full-time on the project, and tend to build up the credibility necessary for commit access. They also know their way around the code better, having spent more time on it, which enables them to contribute more effectively.

The trick for would-be investors in such projects, then, is to find ways to marry developer interests with investor interests. This is non-trivial, but projects like Linux (and now Adblock Plus) suggest that it can be done. Early-stage investor Bryce Roberts suggests that entrepreneurs should "find a revenue model that goes with the grain of your business," and the same is true for developers.

Money isn't evil. It can be quite good, particularly in open source, as it helps to fund serious, significant code. But any business model for VLC, for example, needs to embrace its essence, and not degrade the user (and developer) experience by overloading it with crapware.

As developers discover revenue models that more enhance the value of their applications, rather than detract from it, we'll likely see more community driven open-source projects like VLC embrace outside funding without losing their souls in the process. All of which means more great code, and happier developers.

How about you? Why do you contribute to open-source projects? And how do you contribute?

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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