The face of open source has changed in drastic ways over the last few decades. More and more, FLOSS is at the very heart of business—not just in the tools corporations use to build their projects but also in what they release to the public. The possibility of collaboration with users or competitors (even if at arm’s length) on mutually beneficial solutions has completely changed the landscape of building software. More and more, we want to focus on the one small thing our company can do to provide value, not all the extraneous plumbing required to deliver that value. Enter the age of corporate open source.
Corporate open source is a different beast—a tangled mass of pros and cons. We’ve all heard stories of corporate stewardship gone horribly awry, and we’ve also very likely heard of open source projects that were incubated by one corporation or another but went on to become indispensable tools with rich and diverse communities consisting of contributors from many corporations or none.
So what are the distinguishing factors? As a business interested in making a project open source, how can you do so in a way that results in long-lasting community? As a contributor looking to participate in such a project, what are the signs that it will be a place where your contributions will have a long-lasting impact?
Appium is an open source mobile automation framework that has become incredibly popular in the years since Jonathan Lipps wrote the first lines of its Node.js code. Jonathan and a team of developers launched the project under the direction of their company, Sauce Labs. In those first months, they made some very intentional decisions about how to run the project so as to optimize for community engagement and contribution, and these decisions, it turned out, set them on a path to success and sustainability. Since then, they have learned a lot as a project about what to do (and what not to do) to keep the relationships between project, corporation, and community healthy. Sauce Labs even donated Appium to the JS Foundation in order to cement, once and for all, its insistence that Appium belong to the community first and foremost.
Jonathan shares details of this story, including suggestions for any corporation thinking of running an open source project or for any developer thinking of contributing to a corporate-run open source project. Corporate stewards of an open source project and the project’s community will always have an interesting and delicate relationship, but this relationship need not be strained. It can instead be a beautiful dance that is meaningful for all parties.
The landscape of FLOSS and the usual suspects involved in it may have changed in the last decades, but what has emerged is a system with the potential to continue to elevate the software industry as a whole, while keeping everything a whole lot more open along the way.
Jonathan Lipps has been making things out of code as long as he can remember. Jonathan is currently the director of ecosystem and integrations at Sauce Labs, where he leads a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. Jonathan is the architect and project lead for Appium, the open source, cross-platform mobile automation framework. He has worked as a programmer in the startup world on and off for over a decade but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan holds master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. A San Franciscan, Jonathan is an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human.
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