Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/02/16/funds_or_fun/

AdBlock Plus: Open source for fun (not funds)

Labor of software love

By Matt Asay

Posted in Applications, 16th February 2011 04:00 GMT

Open...and Shut Even as open source has become big business, some of the world's most popular open-source projects remain labors of love for a growing body of developers. Such developers invest years of their lives writing code and fielding complaints from free riders, and they actually seem to like it.

Or love it, in the case of the lead developers at VideoLAN (VLC media player) and Adblock Plus, both of which I interviewed recently in an attempt to better understand the motivation driving the development of these hugely popular, consumer-focused open-source projects.

Both projects have attracted significant interest from venture capitalists, which isn't surprising given that Adblock Plus claims 20 million active users and VLC reaches 80 to 120 million users.

Yet both have largely spurned the moneyed class.

Not content to turn away big-money VC contributions Adblock Plus lead developer Wladimir Palant rejects cash donations of any kind, declaring that: "Money is nowhere near as useful as [contributing translations, testing, reporting bugs, and general evangelism]."

Recently, however, Palant accepted a sponsorship of sorts that allows him to work on the project full-time. But Palant is clear that he was willing to wait for a sponsor/investor who cared about more than money:

I actually had to wait for somebody who is serious about it and wants to help the project succeed, not just make money from it. The other offers were typically about helping distribute other add-ons or advertisement (oh the irony), all of which were rejected without thinking twice.

It's much the same for VLC, as lead developer Jean-Baptiste Kempf told me:

So far, nothing was done [with VCs], because if we ever do something, we need to find a business model that actually adds value for the users. Most business models we've been proposed were linked to shipping toolbars and other crapware while installing VLC. This is not interesting for us.

It's that willingness to emphasize developer and user interests over VC interests that ensures the project continues to command loyalty from both. This is critical because, as Kempf stressed, most of the work is done because it's fun: "A few features are [paid for by sponsors], more than 95 per cent of the work is volunteer work, [done] for...fun."

Fun. Is that enough?

For VLC, it just might be. Kempf estimated that hundreds of man years of development has gone into VLC, much of it done in developers' free time, as none are paid to work on the project full-time.

But probing a little deeper, it's clear that more than fun motivates Kempf:

I've been contributing to VLC [for] five years. I was a student at the French University (École Centrale Paris) where most VideoLAN work was done. When I was doing an internship, I was bored and joined to help the development.

It is a great deal of work, especially since it is done during my free time. I still work on it for two main reasons: I learn a lot during my VideoLAN and VLC activities and I think what we are doing is actually helping people around the world.

It is this last thing that strikes me as offering the most vital reason for the significant contributions to VLC, and it also comes through in Palant's decision to invest so much time in Adblock Plus. He told me: "I have the feeling that this work is important. I can help many people and in the long term the web might actually become a better place."

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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.