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Fish, bicycles, and open-source vendors

Open source needs vendors because vendors pay developers to focus on development.

Business journalist Dana Blankenhorn suggests that open-source projects do very well without vendor involvement. Given that I can't think of an instance of a commercially used project that fits this description, I can't agree.

Even so, I don't think Blankenhorn and I fundamentally disagree. We perhaps just disagree on how elemental money is to open-source development.

Luke Kanies, founder of the Puppet project and the company, Reductive Labs, that offers support for it, gives some indication as to why companies are important to the creation and sustenance of open-source code:

One thing some people apparently don't realize is that Puppet couldn't have been created without Reductive Labs--there's no way I would have had the time or motivation to create Puppet without a company devoted to funding its development. All of the money that Reductive Labs makes goes back into funding Puppet, mostly in the form of development, marketing, and community management (although less of the latter, recently). Almost all of the money I spend on marketing is in the form of conference speaking, so don't think I'm spending big coin on TV spots or anything, but these conferences have been *huge* sources of community growth.

Strangely, I've heard complaints that I'm focusing too much on the company and not enough on the project, and as a result the product is suffering. I find this strange because the project doesn't pay my bills, feed my children, or buy my beer, the company does, and without those things, the project itself couldn't exist. If, instead, I had taken some corporate sysadmin job, I'd have been spending maybe 5-10 hours a week on Puppet, instead of between 10 and 60 hours a week like I've been doing for the last three and a half years. This, I think, is the thing that people tend to forget about open source--yes, you can make money doing open source, but in doing so you almost always put yourself in conflict between making money and writing code.

Putting aside the idea that beer is necessary to the existence of Puppet, I'd summarize Kanies' findings as "company = cash = code." It's very simple, and not all that hard to believe.

Open source in its present form is a commercial phenomenon, even if the motivation that gets developers writing code is not directly so. This, however, is no different from any other job: I don't work at Alfresco because of the money, although I would absolutely quit if I stopped getting paid. (I'd have to. I have four kids and a lovely wife.) No, I'm motivated by what we're building. Money is a necessary, foundational element of this.

It's the same thing with the Gnome community and other open-source communities. Cash gives developers more time to write code, and cash comes from companies.