Open Source And Recessions

There’s an interesting blog post on Open Source and recessions worth reading. Essentially the question is this: Does a recession have a negative impact on open source?

I’d say the answer is somewhat more complex than a simple yes/no. There are many different types of projects out there with entirely different circumstances. However I suspect a projects impact could be gaged on a few key aspects of it’s operation:

Purpose – The purpose of the project is likely the most critical aspect. For example, I don’t think there would be any significant impact on projects like the Linux kernel which is essential to many products out there including server infrastructure that powers much of the web and many companies computer systems. Then you have consumer products like TiVo, Google Android etc. Because it’s purpose is so broad there are enough people with a financial interest in seeing development continue. WebKit, Mozilla, Apache, are good examples of this. They have broad usage by many. Something specific to a more obscure task would have more trouble due to it’s more limited market.

Development Team – Of course for a project to succeed it needs one or more developers. During a recession one could theorize that many would be less inclined to participate. This may not necessarily so. First of all, quite a bit of open source development is loosely sponsored. Several projects have actual staff, paid employees who write open source code. For example Apple employees people to work on WebKit. Mozilla has staff working on Firefox. There are people paid to work on Linux (Red Hat, IBM, Novell, etc.) and many other open source projects. There are also companies who contribute some code that would be of strategic value to them. There’s also those who are simply willing to sponsor some work they want to see happen. All of which fund developers of larger open source projects. But would developers who aren’t sponsored or employed to code still participate? I theorize most still would as they don’t depend on it for income during good times, presumably a job during a recession wouldn’t generally prohibit participation and more than a job during years of economic growth. There’s also the impact of college students who participate partially for the educational aspect. The early 2000’s was a recession and still showed a fair amount of growth of open source. In fact many of todays stars really started to take shape during that period. For example:

Funding – Somewhat obvious: Funding is key. Who pays the developers (partially the last aspect I discussed)? Who pays for the projects needs (servers, etc.)? Many of the more popular projects (almost all of the above) have either an organization of for-profit company around built around it. That company often sponsors the needs of the project. Unless the needs of that companies product/service is no longer needed during the recession, funding likely remains. That’s partially the first aspect I discussed.

It’s my belief the larger and more popular open source projects would feel a minimal impact during a recession. I think history has shown this, and common sense agrees. They are mostly low development cost, adequately funded (often from diverse sources), stable, and have a broad team of developers. The projects that are in trouble are the ones who have very few or only 1 developer, even worse if they share the same sponsor, even worse if there is little community around the project. Most projects would generally experience a slight slowdown in development the degree would depend on the above. A few may go dormant for a period of time. Thanks to things like GPL licensing, another developer can pick up should there be a market in the open source ecosystem.

Overall I don’t think open source would be nearly as impacted as most businesses during a recession. The model is very different. Open source when successful has a community and many different sponsors. The diversity allows the project to survive even when recession causes some sponsors to need to reduce or eliminate involvement. Open Source also by definition is used to this type of environment. It’s used to developing on a budget, soliciting sponsors to help cover costs, etc.

The interesting thing about recession is that it impacts everyone, but the degree to which someone is impacted varies. For example construction and housing are generally harder hit than other industries. People tend to cut back on new home purchases before they cut back on other things. Each of those industries has computing needs, sometimes met by open source. This all feeds into the open source ecosystem.

I’d suggest that all of the projects I have mentioned here will do ok during a recession. Many with a slowdown, but all will still continue as long as they provide value. A notable situation is Mozilla’s income comes largely from Google which is based on ad revenue. During a recession and bubble bursting this would likely dramatically reduce the revenue brought in. This isn’t being ignored. As the 2006 Financial FAQ states:

First, the cash reserve is of course a form of insurance against the loss of income. We will continue to maintain enough of a reserve to allow us flexibility in making product decisions….

It seems that an open source project with a diverse stream of funding from individuals and companies of various industries, as well as developers in different situations is in the best position to survive.

It’s an interesting topic.

Switching to Gaim

I’m not exactly a big Instant Messaging fan, but it seems life forces you to use it these days. The majority of use on AIM, some MSN, Yahoo, and sometimes my favorite Skype. All those clients are clutter. So I don’t use Yahoo much, and keep that one closed. I’ve complained several times about how AOL dropped the ball with AIM. It’s client is about as bloated as Real Player. It’s gotten progressively worse after each release, to get a new feature, or security fix, you need to sacrifice more of your computer. I personally don’t like that concept.

I’m now using Gaim full time, and it seems to work rather well for me, minus a few caveats. Anyone who can help me would be requested to leave a comment:

  • Gaim won’t load with cygwin in the PATH, crashing with no clear error. No clue how to fix this without killing cygwin yet.
  • I could really use a S/MIME encryption plugin so that I’m compatible with those using the official AIM client with security enabled (they use SSL and S/MIME I believe). Anyone know of such a plugin?
  • Way to enforce a minimum font size (windows users tend to use rather small font sizes for things like AIM profiles, I’d love to simply +1 a few off the smaller ones).
  • Not that I use it often, but AIM has somewhat unstable file transfer. Some improvements in that area would be welcome.

Overall, I’m rather satisfied. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than AIM is at the moment. Perhaps Triton will shape up at some point. Until then I think Gaim is the best solution.

Note: Yes, I’ve tried Trillian. It’s a good product, but not good enough to pay for. Sorry Trillian fans. It’s rather ugly (haven’t seen a skin yet that doesn’t fix that), it’s UI is just strange, and it’s just not featured enough for the money. Adium is bliss on my Mac.