A Beginner’s Guide to Open Source

An Overview of the Open Source Software Ecosystem

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This video segment gives the viewer an impression of the scale and quality of the open source ecosystem.


  • Software projects
  • non-profit organisations
  • enterprises
  • foundations
  • Linux

About this video

Karl Beecher
First online
03 December 2018
Online ISBN
Copyright information
© Karl Beecher 2019

Video Transcript

Karl Beecher: So let’s scale up. Over the course of this segment, we’ll zoom out and get an impression of the whole rich open source ecosystem. Now when you zoom in, open source is, at the most basic level, all about individuals, millions and millions of users. And how can we summarize them? No two users are identical. Each has different needs and different skills. But we can say this about them. Spectrum of involvement. Some are users in the simplest sense. They just use the software and have no interest in how it works or how it’s developed. Others get involved at varying levels. Giving feedback, reporting bugs, requesting features, writing code, creating artwork all through in documentation, administrating infrastructure, project managing, and many of the activities. Different motivations. Some users work on a project voluntarily simply for fun, passion, special interests or whatever.

For others, it’s a career. Someone pays them to do work on Open Source Software. As we saw in the last segment, individuals band together around software to form projects. You can think of an open source project as a community of users who collaborate on producing a program or a group of related programs. They can originate in different ways. Here’s a couple of classic ones. Organically. A person or a group might create a program and put it up online. Other people might take notice and get involved themselves. In time, the community might grow organically resulting in a sizeable project. Formally. This is usually the result of an organization creating a project for strategic purposes. They might form their own employees into a team who work in the software or they might hire or sponsor outside just to work on it. Of course that doesn’t mean ordinary users can’t get involved in an organizations project.

Companies often welcome contributors from such people. Similarly, the reverse is true. Organizations might take an interest in organically developed project and seek to get involved themselves, which leads us to consider the next constituent of the open source ecosystem, organizations. And what kind of organizations get involved and why? Broadly speaking, you’ll most often see two types of organization. Non-profits. This is a large group of organizations, the diverse range of purposes all done for the most part without the aim of making money. For example, they might do things like publicity and advocacy. Campaigning for open source issues, bringing things to the attention of people, politicians, and civil organizations. Legal advice and representation. For example protecting open source trademarks, pursuing license violations, advising other organizations involved in open sauce, and so on.

Community building. Putting together and maintaining the necessary infrastructure of open source projects. Giving technical advice. Helping people understand how open source works and how they can get involved. Sponsoring developers and projects, allocating resources to important work. There are many such organizations. For example the Free Software Foundation, Open Source Initiative, Linux Foundation, Document Foundation, Software Freedom Law Center, and dozens more. Commercial enterprises. Companies which make money from Open Source Software and which you could argue, break it down into a couple of further sub-categories. Open source companies. Built from the ground up to deal an Open Source Software. They develop Open Source Software, making money by doing things like selling services or enterprise versions of programs or building products made using Open Source Software.

Examples include Red Hat, Suse, or Canonical. Traditional companies. More and more companies, big and small, are getting into Open Source Software seeking to use it to derive competitive advantages. The biggest names in software like Google, Intel, Microsoft, are all plowing even more resources into Open Source Software. Let’s put all of this into context with a case study. The Linux operating system. Linux began life in 1991 as the hobby project of a single developer, Linus Torvalds. He wrote it partly as a learning exercise and partly because his existing operating system, Minix, was too limited and the original author had no plans to expand it the way Torvalds wanted. So Torvalds just wrote his own operating system. However, when he uploaded the code to the internet, he attracted the attention of fellow developers around the world who began not only to use operating system, but send contributions back to him.

Torvalds license Linux under the GPL, the license we learned about earlier. This allowed people to take Linux, to study it, copy it, modify it, and redistribute that changes. The project snowball into a fully featured industrial strength operating system worked on by hundreds of people across the world. Soon enough, commercial entities came into existence on the back of Linux. One company called Red Hat came into being in 1993 initially selling Linux accessories and a packaged version of Linux called Red Hat Linux. Later, they expanded into selling services around Linux technologies like quality assurance and customer support. The Linux Foundation is a large non-profit organization which aims to build ecosystems around Open Source Software.

Today, its activities go beyond just Linux, but their work supported Linux includes event organization, training and certification in Linux, sponsorship of developers, protection of intellectual property, and much more. Funding comes mainly from commercial sponsors, all companies who have an interest in Linux development including some of the biggest names in technology.