Old Friends and Future Programmers

Doghouse – Future of FOSS

Article from Issue 240/2020

To build the future of FOSS, we need to focus on communicating its value – especially to young people.

Recently three things happened: the celebration of my 70th birthday, a Facebook discussion about songs of the mid-1960s, and the response to a birthday wish.

Being 70 years old has various consequences. I do not run up the stairs as quickly as I did when I was 18. I typically go to sleep earlier and get up later. I take a lot of pills to keep alive – not the fun stuff we may have done when we were younger. I start to look around my home and realize that I have to get rid of some of the things that remind me of my younger days, which brings me to the second topic.

Many of the songs of the mid-to-late 1960s were songs of protest, but also songs of hope and love. We protested what we considered needless wars and sang about making the world better – songs by Dylan; Guthrie; Paul Simon; Peter, Paul and Mary (amazing that after all this time searching for "PP&M" comes up with their names); and other artists. Their songs are still there, and more have followed, but I do not hear people singing them as much.

All of this brings me to the third topic and the reason why I am writing.

I sent a birthday wish to a Facebook person, and he wrote back that he had seen me at many conferences over the past 25 years, but we had never really sat down to talk. He was not blaming me for this; it is just the way things go sometimes. However he lamented that he was "mostly the sole maintainer" of what he considered "one of the building bricks" of GNU/Linux. He was worried that a lot of the other initial "masons of those bricks" were retiring.

I remember in the early days of SourceForge looking at the number of developers of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and seeing around one million people registered. Of course those were not all of the developers of free software, since some of them maintained their code on other sites and some of the people registered were not developers, but it gave me a gauge of the community. In those days, many of the users of FOSS were the people who understood the community and were either developers themselves or otherwise heavily devoted to the movement.

Just as Steve Jobs realized that Apple should not be a computer company, but a consumer product company, FOSS is moving from a "hacker community" to a "user" community, just as the initial computer industry did 50 years ago.

The number of projects that initially existed on SourceForge were in the tens of thousands, but today on GitHub there are over 100 million repositories and 50 million developers. GitLab is another set of repositories boasting 30 million registered users, 3,000 "active" contributors, and 100,000 organizations. And of course SourceForge is still there with 32 million users.

Of course not all of these repositories are "programs," and many of those counted as programmers are not programming full time. Some are university students looking for a convenient place to put the sources for their projects.

However a significant number of commercial companies and governments are using FOSS in their businesses, products, and solutions, with downloads (of course) vastly overwhelming the "commits" of code.

None of this is bad, but it could be better.

For a long time good FOSS projects have realized that FOSS developers come and go. They insist that code contributions "fit" with their style of coding so they are easier to maintain in the future.

It takes more than just coding to make a FOSS project; it takes marketing to the end users, and it takes marketing to future programmers for your project. Sorry, but it does, and part of that is developing a warm and welcoming demeanor to your team and documenting why your project is important.

We need more consumers, managers, and governments to wake up to the fact that more and more FOSS code drives the world.

We need more universities to teach their courses with FOSS code, not just in the computer science and engineering courses, but in law (copyrights, patents, and licensing), business administration (business models and plans), and finance.

We need to give encouragement to the professors who want to teach using FOSS and ask our employers to hire college graduates from universities that teach with it.

We need more high schools to also use FOSS and teach using open source software.

We need more and more mentors to take young developers and teach them the basic marketing models of how to earn a good living writing code for solutions that people need, rather than for products that are only delivered closed source.

We need to build the future now.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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