Tipping Points in Open Source

Follow me on twitter for other posts in this space. A shorter version of this post was originally published on under CC BY-SA 4.0. If you prefer, read the same post on Medium.

Over the last two decades open source has been expanding into all aspects of technology: from software to hardware, from small disruptive startup technologies to large boring enterprise software, from open standards to open patents. In this short post, I will try to call out a three tendencies that I think are reaching the tipping point in open source.

Open for Non-Coders

For good or bad, as the name open "source" suggests, this model has been primarily focused around the source code. Regardless of the intent or the believes, if we look at the open source communities, they are primarily composed of developers who are working on the source code. If we look deeper, the tools used in open source projects such as source control systems, issue trackers, mailing list names, chat channel names, etc - they all assume that the developers are the center of the universe. And that has caused a big loss. It is a big loss not having creative people, designers, document writers, event organizers, community managers, lawyers, accountants, and many others as part of the open source communities. We don't have such individuals actively participating in the open source communities because we don't have the processes and tools for such an inclusion yet. We need and want non-code contributions, but we don't have the means to measure their value, nor ways to reward their efforts in return. Reward by recognition from peers, by the community, by the employers, or anybody in general. As a result, it has been a lose-lose for decades. And we can see the implications in many open source projects with ugly looking websites, amateur logos, badly written and formatted documentation, disorganized events, etc. All of that leading for the so called "open source companies" filling the gap when it is inherently an open source problem.

The good news is that we are getting various signals indicating it is reaching the tipping point and a change is on the way:
  • Linus Torvalds apologises for his "bad behavior". While this is not an action specifically focused around non-coders, it is a very symbolic act in making "open source" a non-hostile place for less-technical contributors.
  • CNCF introduced the non-code contributions guide. In addition to showing how many ways there are for contributing to open source projects as a non-coder, this also sets the baseline for such contributions that other open source projects and foundations will end up following to keep up.
  • More or less around at the same time, ASF has been working in the same direction. There have been long discussions and we will have some concrete output very soon (that is ASF soon).
And there is a little known secret. One thing that non-coders (and new to open source) do not realize yet is that the easiest way to be recognized and become part of an established open source project is by performing non-coding activities. Nowadays, with complex software stacks, and tough competition, there is a pretty high bar for entering a project as a committer. Performing non-coding activities is less popular and it opens a fast backdoor to the open source communities.

Macro Acquisitions

Open source may have started in the hacker community as a way of scratching developers' personal itch, but today, it is the model where innovation happens. It is the model that even worlds largest software companies are transitioning to in order to continue dominating. And why is the enterprise so interested in open source? The "Open Source in the Enterprise" fee e-book I came across recently lists a few good reasons:
  • Multiplying the company’s investment through contributions.
  • Benefiting from the most recent advances and avoid reinvent the wheel in-house.
  • Spreading knowledge of the software and its broader adoption.
  • Increasing the developer base and hiring pool.
  • Upgrading internal developer skills by learning from top coders in the field.
  • Building reputation - developers want to work for organizations they can boast about.
  • Recruiting and retaining - developers want to work on exciting projects that affect large groups of people.
  • Faster startup of new companies and projects through open source networking effect, etc.
Many of these and other benefits of open source are recognized by large organizations which leads to even more open source adoption through company acquisitions. Building an open source company takes many years of effort in the open. Hiring developers who are good and also willing to work in the open, building a community around a project, and a business model is delicate effort. Companies that can manage that are particularly attractive for investment and acquisition as they serve as a catalyst in turning the acquirer an open source company at scale.
Open source related large acquisions of 2018
 Above is a list of the biggest open source software companies acquired in the current year. The list of open source companies and the following acquisitions is getting bigger every other day and this trend is only getting stronger.

Micro OSS Fundings

In addition to the macro acquisitions of open source companies, there is also an increase in the decentralized micro funding of self sustaining open source projects. 
On one end of the spectrum, there are open source projects that are maintained primarily by intrinsically motivated developers. On the other end, large open source companies are hiring developers to work on open source projects driven by company road maps and strategies. That leaves in the middle a large portion of open source projects that are not exciting enough for the accidental contributors, nor in the radar of the enterprise open source companies. In the recent years there is an increase in platforms for funding and sustaining these open source projects through bug bounties, micro payments, recurring donations, funding, subscriptions, etc. These open source funding platforms (which I have listed at allow individuals and open source users to take the responsibility of the open source sustainability in their own hands and pay the open source maintainers directly. It is the same open source model, but applied for value transfer rather than code contributions.

Open source contributor funnels

 The diagram above show the three intensive channels for open source contributors:
  • Hobbyist contributing to open source projects because of intrinsic motivations rather than monetary value.
  • Regular, planned and centralized subsidization by companies with open source business model (open core, SaaS, support, services, etc), monetizing the open source projects directly.
  • Irregular, micro, decentralized subsidization by independent open source users through OSS funding platforms.
While the hobbyist and hackers started the open source movement, it got quickly turned into an enterprise monetization model. Now, having something for the remaining open source projects is welcome.

What Can Blockchain Projects Learn from Open Source?

I've been involved with open source over a decade now. I've been part of small projects with innovative ideas which grew into large projects with solid communities. I've also witnessed how dysfunctional communities can suck the energy of projects for years. All that thanks to the open source development and collaboration.
In recent times, I'm active on the blockchain space as well: reading, writing, and contributing to projects. And I came to the conclusion that blockchain projects are startups with open development and open business models. And to be successful, the first and foremost, blockchain startups have to learn how to build communities the open source way.

Open source code

One of the fundamental premises of blockchain is decentralization and giving control and data back to the user. Such decentralization cannot be achieved without transparency and openness. If the source code is closed, that is no different to the centralized closed systems of today. Without making the code open, there is no way to read and confirm that a system is doing what it is promising to do. There are projects that are trying to avoid it, but even they recognize that the code has to be open to a certain level at a minimum. For example, Hedera Hashgraph (which is technically not a blockchain project, but a similar class of software) has said the code cannot be freely distributed (forked), but it will be open for review. That proves our premise: blockchain projects, first and foremost are open source projects. Whether this can be classified as open source according to "The Open Source Initiative" is not in the scope of this article. The point is, if the source code is not readable/verifiable, there is no point in having something run on a non-trusted blockchain platform.

Open runtime

In addition to the source being open, what differentiates blockchain from non-blockchain open source projects is that fact that for the first the runtime is open as well. An open source project can be developed in the open, but then run and consumed as an open core, as a service, or as part of a closed system. Public blockchain (not looking into private ones here) are permissionless, anyone can join and leave a network, anyone can run a node or two. It represents a trustless and borderless runtime with open governance.

Open data

Another distinct aspect of blockchain is that blockchain projects in addition to the open source code, open runtime, also have open data. Anyone can fork the code (the client application), fork the data  (the blockchain history) and start a new network. That ultimately makes blockchain projects the most open software systems ever existed. Open code, open data, open runtime, open business model, ensure openness in multiple dimensions.

Open business model

Blockchain startups are a very unique mix of open source development, and open value capture models, all blended into one at source code level. While a non-blockchain based open source project is typically used for creating value through collaborative development and open adoption, capturing value happens through a separate business model. The business model can be thought in advance or defined later such as SaaS, open core, subscription, etc. With the blockchain projects, the business model is described in a white paper, and the token model capturing value is implemented in the source code in advance. All that makes blockchain projects a unique blend of value creation and instant capture and distribution.

Why be so open?

Most of the blockchain projects are aiming to become some kind of platform or a hub with open standards and protocols that will attract and be adopted by the developers and consumed by users subsequently. The primary way these platforms and protocols attract developers is not through technical superiority over non-blockchain technology, but by the unique decentralization, characteristics achieved through openness in multiple dimensions. These platforms have to be open in order to become more attractive than the existing closed systems which already have all the developers and users on them. Being open is not only a prerequisite for its transparency, but also for its distribution and adoption. That is especially valid for projects which are aimed to be consumed as a platform or protocol by developers rather than end users. Open source is the primary way for developers to explore, learn and start using a project.

Isn't "open" a weakness?

There was a time when being open source was considered a dangerous act as a competitor could copy and steal the code or the ideas. The recent times proved that being open source is the primary way for developer adoption, especially for developer-centric platforms, tools, and libraries. But as we have seen above, blockchain is also open runtime and open data as well. Which means anybody can fork the code and the data and start a parallel network. That makes a project vulnerable to even more kinds of splits/forks and value grab. And we have seen this happened many times with the forks of the most popular blockchain networks such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. Yet, these projects are performing better than projects which are looking for ways to prevent forking but also lack the ability to attract followers. That is because being open is actually a sign of strength. If a network is so open and has survived forks and attacks, it makes its community only stronger.
We can observe the act of being open not only in projects, but also people and organizations. Today, people and organization rush into sharing and showing off their knowledge through open source code, conference talks, blogging, tweeting, etc. The innovation is happening so fast in certain areas that by the time somebody can understand and copy an idea, the inventor of the idea will have created the next one. And being a copycat in a winner takes all markets has a negative networking effect on community growth. In the journey to conquer the closed and centralized systems, being open is the primary weapon.

Hype is different than a community

I've seen many times, how successful Initial Coin Offering (ICO) investors measure hype around a project for an early investment. Typically such a measure works only when the early investment is accompanied by an early exit. In practical terms that means identifying the most hyped ICO, and selling all tokens as soon as it hits an exchange. Measuring such a hype is done by simple statistics around Twitter followers, Facebook followers, Reddit subscribers, Telegram users, etc. These metrics have a little value for measuring a community strength for the following reasons:
  • Metrics are artificially inflated with fake accounts, paid followers, subscribers, etc;
  • The ICOs themselves run airdrops campaigns and distribute tokens for following, subscribing, joining, etc;
  • These are the wrong metrics for measuring a developer-centric community;
What I mean by the latter is that an open source project that is going to be used by developers (as a platform, protocol, whatever) should measure developer activity, rather than airdrop hunter activities. None of the actions mentioned above are building stickiness in a project community. In fact, all of these activities are purposefully skewing the community metrics using temporary incentives.

Community over market cap

The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is one of the biggest and oldest software foundations, home of hundreds of popular open source projects. And there, we (I'm a member, committer, and PMC there) have a very fundamental belief that says: "Community over Code". As a software foundation, we are all about code, and wouldn't have a reason for existing without the code, but this slogan actually codifies how we do things, and how we go about decision making. ASF is first a home for communities rather than a repository for code. The code is the by-product of a good and healthy community. And we first try to grow healthy communities united around projects.

If we look for example how an ASF project measures its quarterly activity and progress, that is by the number of mailing list subscribers, emails sent, issues opened/closed, pull requests created/merged, software releases done, committers and PMCs voted for. The last one is a very important long term indicator for the health of a project measuring the ultimate level of commitment of community members to the success of the projects. If you look at these metrics, these are all about activities performed by technical people rather than temporarily incentivised airdrop hunters. These activities are harder to fake as they require doing something for the project (usually consuming brain power and time) rather than clicking a like/follow button which easier to outsource.

A blockchain project has a more complex ecosystem than an open source project alone. There are developers, but also miners (or their equivalent for running the network), investors, and eventually users. Measuring only the developer activity won't be indicative enough for the full ecosystem, but focusing on the right metrics would be a good start.
In a similar spirit to the ASF's "Community over Code", I think the cryptocurrencies would benefit from "Community over Market Cap". A healthy community is a far more important long-term measure than a temporary large market cap. The price of a token/coin and its market cap can be artificially manipulated or temporarily affected by a bear market. A strong and healthy community can hodl and survive ups and downs. An unhealthy community, without any stickiness to the project would fall apart anyway.

Building communities the blockchain way

Are there good examples of building stickiness and community around the new blockchain projects? I have seen a few projects that have recognized the importance of the community from the very beginning and approached their token sale completely uniquely. These projects aimed to familiarizing the prospective early investors with the project goals, white paper, mission and not only ask for money. There are definitely more examples, but the projects with unique token sale processes I have seen are the following.
  • DFINITY project had a registration process that cost close to 10$. Then they gave that money back in the form of a swag and a free t-shirt. But it was a good method to get rid of the people who are there only for the noise and not even willing to commit 10 bucks.
  • QuarkChain ICO process had quiz with 25 not very simple questions. In order to join the token sale, one had to be part of their telegram channel from early days + have a good score on the quiz + pass the lottery. While the lottery and telegram channel components were already present in other ICOs at the time, the quiz actually forced candidates to find the answers in a short time, and learn about the project (that led to a blackmarket of quiz answers, but it was a nice attempt the least).
  • One of the best executions of community building during ICO phase has been of Mainframe. Mainframe run three crowdgift campaigns:
  • Proof of Being - where tokens where literally physically dropped from the air in certain locations around the world. To get tokens, one had to get to the meetup, meet the team and grab some tokens.
  • Proof of Freedom - where participants had to answer the question why Mainframe mission mattered to them, and submit the answers in any form: tweet, blog post, audio, video, drawing, etc. I also took part in it by writing a blog post.
  • Proof of Heart - where participants were asked to donate Ether which then went to a few non-profit organizations.
We can see how Mainframe used three different methods (each with its pros and cons) to build stickiness, awareness and community around its project and even managed to raise money for non-profit organizations.
Blockchain projects are especially sensitive to Metcalfe's law and their value is directly proportional to the size of its community. A token not used by anybody is worth nothing. A platform without developers is a zombi platform. Building a community around the crypto project is as important as building the platform itself, if not more. While the crypto world knows how to raise money, the open source world knows how to build communities. They can learn something from each other.

Follow me on twitter for other posts in this space. A shorter version of this post was originally published on under CC BY-SA 4.0. If you prefer, read the same post on Medium.

The New Kingdom Builders

Today’s developers aren’t just kingmakers; thanks to blockchain, they’re building their own kingdoms.

 The New Kingmakers

"The New Kingmakers" by Stephen O'Grady is a great book explaining why the developers are the most important assets a business has. In it, Stephen explains how developers are shaping products in new ways and organizations that understand and embrace the value of this shift will be the most successful in the years to come. It shows how IT decision makers aren’t making the decisions any longer, but the developers are. They have the power to make or break businesses, whether by their experience, their talent, or their passion. The book also has quotes from the legendary CEOs (the Kings - if we keep the book analogy) quantifying developers:
  • Steve Jobs who believed that an elite talent was 25 times more valuable to Apple than an average alternative.
  • Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg saying that someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good, they are 100 times better. 
  • For Bill Gates, the number is 10,000 times better, etc.
In summary, every business is a software business and the developers are the most important constituency in it. The developers can make a company great, or break it apart. Developers can help a company conquer the world and make new kings (hence - The New Kingmakers).

The New Kingdom Builders

The era of the kingmaker developers has not ended. The urge to hire the best developers continues. The quest for engaging with developers, getting the developer mind-share and acceptances continues. The open cloud, open standards, free developer tools, open patents, open source are just the latest tools in this endeavor. The fact that open source has become an ubiquitous indication of how important it is to be accepted by developers.

While I agree with the written above, I think we have come to a new era where developers can conquer the world by creating their own kingdoms. Today there is technology that allows great developers to challenge established kingdoms, to build new kingdoms, and become kings themselves. This technology is the blockchain.

Open source is a collaborative software development and distribution model that allows people with common interests produce something that no individual can create on their own. It allows best ideas to spread openly and implemented collectively. It allows great developers to express their creativity and mastery in a subject. But open source doesn't allow capturing value. Open source produces value, then a business model built separately on top of open source captures the value.

Since there is no verified photo of Satoshi,
I went with Vitalik's photo
While open source is a value creation model, blockchain is a value distribution and capturing model. Open source is a development time characteristic, whereas blockchain is the runtime characteristic of a software. Developers that can combine both (not only create but also capture the value with code) can create new kingdoms out of thin air. That is possible because the value capturing in blockchain based projects is embedded in its core, it is part of the code, rather than being a distinct model build on top of the code and allowing somebody else to monetize it. Open source unites mainly the techies in creating something new, but the blockchain model can unite investors through ICOs to support best ideas, it can unite miners (not investors, not users, but a new class of actors in this ecosystem) to run the network nodes, it can attract the final consumers who care about decentralization and transparency. Blockchain brings a closure to the end-to-end cycle of building and then running software in the open i.e. from idea stage into mass consumption.

To be precise, open source is not a prerequisite for capturing value, but it helps for its creation. Also there are other technologies similar to blockchain, such as tangle, hashgraph, etc which follow a similar distribution and value capture model. The common characteristic among all of them is the fact that value capturing and distribution is embedded in the technology itself rather than being a separate model.

Here are a few of the pioneer kingdom creators of our time:
  • Satoshi Nakamoto started wrote the Bitcoin whitepaper. After 10 years, his/her/their vision is worth over $100 billion. More importantly, that vision gave the spark for many more to follow.
  • Vitalik Buterin created the Ethereum project which is worth over $1 billion now.
  • Daniel Larimer created Steem project worth over $250 million and then created EOS that is close to $5 billion.
  • Charles Hoskinson created Cardano worth over $2 billion.
  • Jed McCaleb created Ripple and then Stellar projects, worth billions...
Clearly, the list above contains only the geniuses and visionaries of this new world. These are the Linus Torvalds of blockchain and they are the only handful. But there are many who follow them. There are many who use the platforms created by these geniuses and come up with new business models and experiment in creating their own kingdoms. Some will fail, and some will succeed. But clearly, there is a new path for developers to conquer the world and this time for real.

Follow me on twitter for other posts in this space. This post was originally published on under CC BY-SA 4.0. If you prefer, read the same post on Medium.

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