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Developers’ take on open source support by Google, Facebook, Amazon and nonprofit organisations

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

by Jed Stephens

Ever wondered what developers value in open source and which companies fulfil those desires? How about a showdown between companies for the top spot of ‘friend of open source’? And which nonprofit organisations have made the perceived greatest contribution to accelerating innovations in open source? The answers are further down your screen.

In our State of the Developer Nation report (18th Edition) we showed which developer profiles contribute to open source, what sectors they work in, and explained their reasons for contributing. The report looked at the expectations that open source developers have of companies. In this blog post, however, we focus on all developers, not just those who contribute to open source. The chart below shows what support for open source developers expect from companies.

Expectations of open source support by companies are consistently higher for professional developers. This is particularly true for the expectation of how to use open source documentation, and for support of commonly used OSS libraries - the two types of support for open source that developers most expect from companies.

Non-professional developers, who would be less likely to have access to commercial (alternative) products, curiously have fewer expectations of companies’ open source contributions. This is clear even directly in the form of a greater percentage of non-professionals agreeing that they do not expect anything from companies and that open source is a community thing. For non-professional developers, the order of the top three expectations differs slightly: in a tie for first place are the expectations of full documentation and of companies’ support and contribution to open source communities. Supporting commonly used open source libraries & frameworks on a vendor platform comes third in this case.

No matter which sector a developer may work in (such as web, desktop, backend, mobile, and more), full documentation remains top or near the top. Other expectations shift position more dramatically with the sector. For example, only 32% of game developers agree that companies must support APIs built on top of software they have contributed to, compared to the 38% to 39% of augmented reality, data science, machine learning, industrial IoT, and backend developers who agree with this statement. The sectors where developers show the largest expectations overall are machine learning and industrial IoT, with an average of 40% agreement across all types of expectations.

Leading tech companies don’t make it to the top of the OSS support ranking

We asked developers to rate on a scale from 1 to 5 how well different companies embodied the above expectations. A rating of 1 indicates they are very dissatisfied, and a rating of 5 indicates they are very satisfied. Using this data, we calculated satisfaction scores as the difference in 5-star ratings minus 1-star and 2-star ratings for each expectation. Scores range between -100 and +100, a score of -100 indicating that all developers are dissatisfied, and a score of +100 the opposite. The companies we show here are Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Red Hat, Salesforce and as well as nonprofit Mozilla. We also benchmarked other major companies in our survey.

The first thing to note is that tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, are not at the top of the satisfaction ranking for any type of support that developers expect for open source. It is Mozilla that leads across all five main areas of OSS support, with Google being a close second only in support of APIs built on top of OSS. Mozilla was founded with open source development in mind, with the lion’s share of its income from royalties associated with Firefox. Mozilla goes on to use these funds (see footnote 1) to maintain and innovate important emerging technologies such as its common voice, machine learning, mixed reality, and (of course) Firefox initiatives. This demonstrates that Mozilla not only supports or contributes, but also originates and drives whole open source initiatives.

Red Hat comes second, again ahead of the major platform providers, when it comes to documentation as well as support of and contribution to open source communities. Red Hat’s contributions to OSS comes from their open development model (see footnote 2) during which Red Hat evaluates the best open source projects and then supports these initiatives (in the process, Red Hat would gain deeper knowledge of the workings and vulnerabilities present). Red Hat creates products upstream from these OSS projects to fulfil their clients’ needs and contributes back to the OS community some of the changes. This explains why they score relatively well for support and contributing, but not necessarily for documentation of OSS.

Focusing on the big tech companies, we find that Google has a clear lead, while Facebook and Microsoft follow, being roughly at the same level on all types of support but one: developers do not perceive Microsoft as doing as well in building products and services upon OSS. Facebook has similar scores across all types of support, which implies that developers appreciate a well-rounded effort to support OSS in varying ways.

Amazon is trailing further behind, with a rather poor performance in supporting and contributing to open source communities. This suggests that Amazon has a more closed culture. A fact supported by the Amazon product-specific nature of their open source repositories. While Amazon states (see footnote 3) that they have contributed to many open source projects outside their organisation, it is difficult for developers to reconcile and therefore perceive these contributions.

What is clear is that how companies are perceived to perform in each of these expectations is decoupled from the number of repositories (a proxy for a consumer's awareness of a company’s respective overall open source contribution) that a company has. Google boasts of having over 2,000 open source projects (see footnote 4). Facebook, on the other hand, has just above 120 open source repositories (see footnote 5) and Microsoft tips the scale with over 3,800 repositories (see footnote 6). This finding supports two ideas. First, open source is an area where quantity and quality are independently evaluated. Second, developers may not believe that companies need to have their own open source projects. However, companies should at least support 3rd party OSS on their platforms.

Regardless of which type of support is used to rank these companies, the order remains roughly similar. This indicates that although a company may be slightly better or worse than its neighbour for a particular type of OSS support, in general it is not on a single type of support alone that a company has gained its open source reputation, but its end-to-end strategy on OSS.

Another interesting insight is that although full documentation is the most desired type of support, it consistently ranks as one of the areas in which developers are the least satisfied. Let’s take Google for example. While they have a satisfaction score of +41 for support and contribution to open source communities, they have a satisfaction score of 8 points less for OSS documentation. Improving documentation, much of our other research finds, is one the best ways that a company can reach developers within a sector. It is also a low-hanging fruit for any company wanting to improve its commitment to open source since it is an area where companies typically underperform relative to the other types of support, whilst being highly valued by developers.

OSS support by nonprofit organisations is mostly unacknowledged

The role that nonprofit organisations play in open source is undoubtedly important. But our research shows that this is somewhat a thankless task, with the majority of developers being unsure about the impact that nonprofit organisations have in accelerating innovations in open source software. Even the support of Mozilla and Linux Foundations, that are leading the pack in this regard, is deemed relevant or very relevant by less than 40% of developers. OSS is massively collaborative by design. But an implication of this is that individual contributors or custodians may themselves be eclipsed by the project. To paraphrase, OSS belongs to everyone a result hereof appears to be that its origin is associated with belonging to no-one.

Open source continues to grow. It's unlikely that it will play a smaller role than it currently does for developers in the future. Here we’ve outlined what expectations developers have of companies to support open source. We’ve found that companies have gained their open source reputation based on the all-rounded open software support that they offer, rather than on just individual aspects of it. Clearly, some companies do better than others in this regard. Although nonprofit organisations are big contributors to open source, the majority of developers are unaware of these contributions, even when it comes to the widely known organisations in this category, such as Mozilla and the Linux Foundation.



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