Companies and their stewardship of open source projects

October 24, 2021

One of the articles of the time interval is Dustin Moris Gorski's Can we trust Microsoft with Open Source?, written in the wake of what I will just describe as Microsoft shenanigans around .NET. In the wake of reading that and having some general thoughts, I tweeted:

Can we trust Microsoft with open source? No, of course not. Nor can we trust Google, Apple, or Facebook. Any appearance of open source friendliness is tactical; it's not and has never been a deep seated cultural value.

(Applications to Github are left for Halloween scares.)

All of these companies (and others) have behaved in less than desirable ways around open source projects that they have either founded, inherited, or become significant contributors to (whether that contribution is developer resources, money, or what have you). And these are the good companies, the ones where the issue is even worth talking about.

(Oracle closing off OpenSolaris is very well known, but no one expects anything from Oracle except rapacious pricing.)

As a good first approximation, we cannot expect any company to be a genuinely good steward of open source projects. Unless open source is extremely deep in the company's culture, their support of open source is not a core imperative, it's a cold blooded business decision. This doesn't necessarily mean that they are exploiting open source, but it does mean that their support for their open source projects will only continue as long as they consider it not harmful and not too expensive for the benefit that both the project and being good stewards bring them. As we saw with .NET, when this is no longer true, things happen.

(Microsoft backed down this time but that was because their calculus of costs and benefits changed, not because they had a change of heart. The future course of Microsoft's stewardship of .NET is now clear, if it wasn't already.)

I do think that large companies can make what they feel is a good faith decision today to be a good steward to some open source project. Companies are made up of people and people can have good intentions and take actions with them. But companies also respond to incentives (and indeed are forced to), and over the long run those incentives point in the wrong direction. By default, a company is a remorseless machine that will crush any significant obstacle in its path.

Written on 24 October 2021.
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Last modified: Sun Oct 24 22:58:17 2021
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