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The Linux developer lifestyle, exposed

Are open-source developers all sandal-wearing geeks? A new survey reveals a detailed picture of free software developers' motivations and expectations--and even their personal lives.

4 min read
Are open-source devotees the bearded, sandal-wearing geeks that legend says they are?

According to a new survey, open-source software developers are mostly men in their twenties, and they vastly favor the Debian operating system distribution. The "Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS)" report also found that although many might not make a living from their open-source activities, they spend a serious amount of time on them.

The report on the state of the open-source industry, carried out by the International Institute of Infonomics at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands and Berlecon Research, forms one of the most detailed pictures yet of open-source developers, examining their motives and habits, and even their personal lives. It also looks at the way governments and businesses use open-source software.

The name of the report refers to three different terms for open-source software, which broadly refers to software distributed under a license that allows developers to modify and redistribute the software's original programming code, as long as the modifications are returned to the community. The study itself does not, however, draw fine distinctions between the different terms.

The survey portion of FLOSS was conducted online, and was circulated freely among developers without geographic limitations. The analysis was based on responses from 2,784 participants, 70 percent of whom live in European Union countries, and 14 percent in the United States.

Personal lives
The more striking of the survey's findings are those relating to developers' personal characteristics: They are 98.9 percent male, and 41.4 percent are single. Another 18.6 percent have partners but are not living with them, while 18.8 percent have live-in partners and another 21.1 percent are married.

This means that 60 percent are not cohabiting, but the study's authors noted that 60 percent are in a relationship of some kind. "The often-mentioned assumption that OS/FS (open source/free software) developers are singles that are bored and have no partnership obligations and responsibilities is apparently not true," the report said.

Seventeen percent of those surveyed had children, with half of those having only one child.

The developers surveyed by the report were young, with the largest number aged 21. The bulk of the respondents were aged between 19 and 33. This, combined with the fact that the vast majority of developers began their involvement with open source in the second half of the 1990s, could be a good sign for the open-source industry as a whole. "Developing open source/free software is rather a matter of the rising generation than one of experienced software developers," the report concludes.

Open-source software has long been considered primarily an activity of hobbyists, rather than paid work, and the survey bears this perception out. Nearly 70 percent of the respondents spend 10 hours per week or less on open-source work, with 23 percent spending only two hours per week. Nine percent spend between 20 and 40 hours per week on open source, with 7 percent spending more than 40 hours a week.

The authors concluded, however, that the majority of developers take open-source development "very seriously," investing more than two hours a week in it. Involvement in open source tends to be associated with professional developers, the report said, with roughly half of the respondents also being involved in proprietary software development.

They also uncovered a startlingly active group of what might be termed extreme coders: Out of those who spend more than 40 hours a week on open-source development, 38 percent also spend more than 40 hours per week developing proprietary software. However, these developers only make up 0.8 percent of the total surveyed.

Debian on top
The developers were mostly involved in networking and Web services projects, and the largest proportion--48 percent--preferred the Debian operating system. Red Hat was a distant second, with 13.8 percent, followed by Mandrake with 9.8 percent and SuSE with 9.2 percent.

Gnome and KDE, Unix-based desktop environments, were closely matched in popularity, with Gnome at 32.4 percent and KDE at 30.2 percent.

In a reversal from the norm in the mainstream world, those who preferred sticking to the command line made up 8.3 percent, more than the combined users of Windows (3.6 percent) and Mac OS (2.3 percent) operating systems.

Open-source developers tended to get involved with the movement out of a desire to improve their programming skills, but over time had increasingly material and political interests in open source, the report said.

Developers tended to identify themselves as either allied with the "free software" (48 percent) or "open source" (32.6 percent) communities. "Open source" is a more recent term than "free software," having been coined in 1998 to encourage a more business-friendly approach to the free software concept.

However, the picture is not as polarized as this might suggest, the report said: Respondents ranged from saying that the two terms should be entirely separate, to saying that they were practically the same thing.

In analyzing the geographic distribution of participants, compared with their national origins, the study found that the United States is--perhaps predictably--the top home of open-source developers. However, Europe now features a large concentration of open-source developers as well and "is no longer behind the USA", according to the report.

The report also found a strong and growing use of open source in European Union governments, with leadership in France and Germany. The study argued that open-source software could benefit the public sector through reducing long-term costs and dependency on a single powerful software vendor.

It recommended that governments create policies favoring open-source solutions when they are available, while recognizing that public-sector adoption is more likely to increase from the ground up, rather than by sudden policy changes.