Open Source Software - Big Tech's New Trough?

by Paige Donner. Written without AI/ ChatGPT. Images by Dall-E 2.

Big Tech at the trough of Open Source Software.
Big Tech at the trough of Open Source Software.

Software Is Eating The World    Big Tech Is Eating Open Source Software

For years the term ‘open source software’ has had heroic connotations.  Programs and software that tech giants have made proprietary and, for many, unaffordable, had a healthy dose of competition by the advent of open source software. Iconoclastic, renegade developers tirelessly tooling open source computer programs became the new Zorro-like figures. He/she embodied the romantic vision of a masked vigilante who defends the commoners from the tyranny of big business and tech giants. But who remains elusive thanks to his/her skill and cunning.

So it’s not surprising that a kind of heart-string-pulling cult grew up around the notion of open source software. I, myself, refused to purchase Microsoft Word for years and relied primarily on Apache’s Open Office - and still prefer it today, to be honest.

However, co-optation seems to be alarmingly present in the worlds of software development, open source code and where these intersect Big Tech. I maintain that we need to look at this blanket acceptance of ‘open source software is best’ assumption and pull at a few threads, at the very least.

Open Source At Start Does Not Insure Open Source At Finish

Big Tech Eats Open Source Software for Breakfast
Big Tech Eats Open Source Software for Breakfast

The big eye opener of recent is Open AI’s acquisition by not just a huge tech company, but one that does $billions in business each year as a government contractor.  OpenAI, named such for its initial dedication to developing AI openly and as a non-profit, is, of course, owned today by Microsoft. People think of Microsoft as a tech company, which it is. But, along with Amazon, it’s also one of the biggest federal contractors, with billions awarded each year in government business.

It’s futile to try to paint woulda, shoulda, coulda scenarios but if the principal founder/CEO of Open AI had had the option to exit to comparable personal wealth at the price of turning the then-non-profit Open Source, would he have?

The premise of my question here is that when the founding team has the option to extract personal wealth and professional recognition from their project, they will take the incentive. Which will then in turn motivate them more to flip the project to open source.

What we are seeing today, however, is that Big Tech, such as META, Alphabet, IBM and Coinbase are using open source as a trough to fuel their own expansion initiatives and competitive business practices. Or, as simply a marketing ploy.

Adopting Open Source…Only To Co-Opt And Crush It

Open Source Software, Where?
Open Source Software, Where?

In his popular Youtube magazine, Cold Fusion, Dagogo outlines how META’s tactic for open sourcing their newest social media platform is actually just building on an open source software product called Activity Hub created by none other than Tim Berners-Lee. Berners-Lee is, of course, the former CERN computer scientist  famous for setting https:// to open source. It’s a good 2 minute watch that starts at the 11 minute mark.

Many of us in Web3 are familiar with this concept of importing your followers and community to whichever ‘decentralized social media’ platform you like. It has become popularized by Lens. It would appear that META took notice and intends to do the same. Will Lens get crushed in this newest pivot of META’s? Like the once-popular Clubhouse got crushed by Twitter Spaces? And who has even heard of Berners-Lee’s MIT incubated Solid?

“The spirit early on was enabling people to innovate… there were blogs,user generated content – people set up their own sites and linked to other people’s blogs -This fuelled enablement. But then we lost that to social networks and all the innovation started happening in the labs of bigger firms and that’s been hampering innovation [elsewhere].” - Tim Berners-Lee 

This quote above is fundamental to my point here. The point being that Big Tech is feeding at the trough of Open Source Software. There are many brilliant open source projects that you can find on Github (a code repo platform owned by Microsoft) and other data repositories. Each blockchain now has thriving ecosystems where developers spit out code and projects pretty much all in open source. Many of the dev grants stipulate that your project must be open source in order to qualify for funds.

When you are a big company like Coinbase who is issuing the open source release of their tokenized science platform called ResearchHub, that is not an issue. With an arsenal of several billion dollars, the best lawyers on the planet on your payroll, teams of well-paid devs, marketing and distribution experts, issuing a tokenized scientific platform as open source is not a threat to its competitive advantage. C’mon, who’s gonna take them on? I mean, Coinbase is suing the SEC, after all. If they can sue the US government, you can best believe that unwanted competition using their ‘open source’ code will not go ignored.

So in this above example, open source still works for the developers, sure. IF you are a billion dollar company already firmly entrenched in the tech world. In this case, that is your moat. IP or proprietary software will not fortify your already impregnable moat. So in this instance, open source is, arguably, just a marketing ploy.

What’s even more poignant here, is that Coinbase is launching their own L2 blockchain August 9th called BASE. So now not only have they tokenized scientific research, but they also will own (and 100% control) the blockchain on which the science data they harvest rests. I believe that in business parlance this is called vertical integration. Except here we are talking about science.

Open Source Software vs. Exit To Community
Open Source Software vs. Exit To Community


So what about science? Should science be open source?  There is a strong movement within the global scientific community that is advocating for Open Science. There is a parallel movement within this community that strongly advocates for open source scientific research software.

With blockchain companies now creating their own blockchains where scientific IP and data can and will be immutably stored - forever - is this a system we want to support and promote?  Sure, ResearchHub is ‘open source.’ But if the blockchain it lives on is proprietary to Coinbase, then isn’t that just a deceptive label?

Open Science & Open Source Software

Building in a proprietary source code framework initially means you have decisions to make as your product matures. We have faced these decisions in our development of Frontier Registry, an on-chain scientific publishing platform. For example, will we release it as open source pre-Beta?  Or will we wait until we have a minimum number of users, such as 100K MAUs (aka a minimum moat)?  Or should we ignore the peer pressure to share our code open source altogether?

One assumption that has come up repeatedly in discussions is that building in proprietary IP mode will engender a reflexive monopolistic strategy. It is true, this is how trillion dollar companies such as Apple, Microsoft, AWS and Alphabet have been built.  But as we include a diversity of founders in tech, it stands to reason that they (we) will bring a diversity of values and strategies, too.

One such strategy can be ‘Exit to Community.’ In other words, you build your science research software as a proprietary model, but freely open for users. And then as your user base increases, and as your UX/UI is refined, you can gradually exit to community. This means that the software then becomes user governed and licensing decisions are made by the user community, democratically. Revenue could also be community managed. In fact, revenue could go back into funding the community’s preferred research tracks.

So this strategy is not ‘open source software’ per se. But it is a sustainable business strategy and one that can potentially support a thriving research community.

This is a more strategic model than giving away brilliant innovation and software development to tech giants - for free - for them to use it to increase their empire and domination over the rest of us;  And thereby giving them free rein to crush innovative open source software startups in the process.

What do you think?

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