Who is the open source community?

Study sheds light on what open source developers are really like, with some surprises

Who is the open-source community, anyway?

Oh, we know the big names, Linus Torvalds of Linux fame, Larry Wall of Perl, Jeremy Allison of Samba, and so on. But who makes up the rank and file?

The first objective answers are in the University of North Carolina's (UNC) Open-Source Research Team's report, "A Quantitative Profile of a Community of Open Source Linux Developers".

The results may not be what you expected. For example, the vast majority of Linux developers only work on one or two programs. There are only four developers with more than 20 contributions and only 13 have more than 10. In other words, open-source development is broad based.

Out of the 3,500-plus contributions tracked, a plurality of them are by Europeans (37 percent). At the same time, 23 percent of the authors hail from commercial (.com) sites.

What about the proverbial, longhaired, barefooted perpetual graduate student/hacker? UNC found that he and she only wrote 12 percent of Linux applications.

These open-source folks are not playing games, either. Application development, system work and the X Windows System are what open-source developers spend their time on. Games? Who's got time for games? Only 14 percent of the contributed work is on games. Open-source developers are at least as serious, as the jokes go, as their Quake-playing equivalents in conventional software development.

There are also more open-source developers by the day and the community's rate of work has been expanding faster over the years. In 1998, for example, there were 1,021 total new additions to the open-source base. By June of this year, there were already 804. Seemingly, open source itself, and not just its press coverage, is growing.

What motivates open-source developers? According to Eric Raymond, high priest of the open-source faith, it's a desire for recognition for the quality of their work.

But Paul Jones, Director of UNC MetaLab (formerly known as SunSITE), disagrees. Eric's "right at least in spirit. But the numbers say otherwise." Jones says he believes that there's "no great expectation of recognition... but people give to share." (Believe it or not, O children of the Reagan Era.)

The study is based on UNC's MetaLab comprehensive collection of Linux software maps (LSMs) for Linux application developers. LSMs serve both as a way of announcing new software to the open-source community and insuring that developers get credit for their work.

While the UNC study data has some holes, they are relatively minor. The authors admit that kernel development isn't covered. And, that some prominent developers, because their work doesn't appear in LSMs, aren't counted. Erik Troan, Red Hat's director of engineering and creator of the popular Red Hat Package Manager for program distribution, for example, gets no LSM credit.

Still, this groundbreaking study does an admirable job of taking the first objective look at the open-source community.

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