Corporate investment the price of Linux's freedom

It may be open source, but Linux has frequently required corporate support, including from the proprietary software market.

Only 12.5 per cent of contributions to the kernel are donated by individuals not known to have any corporate affiliation or sponsorship, which runs contrary to the myth of the lone hacker working at his kitchen table.

(However, this statistic may be deceptive. Some companies assign developers to work on specific aspects of the kernel, but many developers work from home, and are sponsored by corporations to do what they would be doing anyway, and most, if not all, of the original kernel hackers are now paid for their work.)

Self serving

That there is such heavy corporate sponsorship of Linux should not be surprising. Organisations with histories as diverse as Intel, Novell, HP, NASA, Sun Microsystems and IBM have not only contributed their ideas and software under the GPL and its variants, but have also actively participated in free software projects to their mutual benefit.

The success of open source has encouraged commercial enterprises to understand that there are advantages in collaboration - that the value lies in the final product, not the enabling software, and it pays for organisations to collaborate with each other to share skills and lower the barriers on research and development.

John Sarsgard of IBM stated the case quite clearly back in 2003: "Is it a charitable thing for IBM to have 250 engineers working on Linux? Long term, we are getting a cheaper operating system than we can by building our own. It's self serving. We can't build a Linux class operating system all by ourselves with only 250 people." In fact, it has been estimated that it would cost upwards of $10 billion to develop Linux from scratch.

Open source software development may not have a coherent methodology that defines every aspect of software development but the common tools of open source development, git or CVS or Subversion (the most commonly used software version control systems) and the use of mailing lists that record revisions and bugs, have successfully opened new avenues for project management, collaboration, and voluntary contribution by third party developers.

The computer hardware industry sees direct benefits in supporting free software. Resources can be dedicated to other activities, and development costs can be shared across the industry. The driver is open standards, which give both manufacturers and users a better deal. This cooperation is now reaching far beyond the bottom layer of the software stack. Companies have contributed large chunks of code and personnel to the development of projects such as OpenOffice.org, Gnome and Firefox - and this phenomenon is set to continue into other fields.

How it gets that way

For most commercial enterprises software is a tool, not the final objective, and there is a common interest among competing companies to share the costs of developing software that "just works", but there is also a willingness to pay for the services around more sophisticated open source products higher up the software stack.

There are many models for paying for free software. The success of the JBoss J2EE application server is an illustration of the fact that a free software project can generate substantial revenues without compromising its principles - subscription, installation, training, support, upgrades and maintenance can provide realistic opportunities for creating income streams for a product that is at least the equal of, and arguably superior to, many of its rivals.

JBoss, now owned by Red Hat, has not only become a dominant player in its market, but also employs most of the key developers behind an expanding portfolio of Java middleware projects.

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