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December 18, 2020
What do developers value in open source?

Open-source software (OSS) is used by 92% of developers, so what exactly do they value in it? We find that developers value OSS’s ability to supersede any single contributor and live on almost eternally. We highlight some uncertainty around OSS’s future by showing trends from geographic regions and sectors. The findings shared in this post are based on the Developer Economics survey 19th edition which ran during June-August 2020 and reached more than 17,000 developers in 159 countries.

What exactly do developers value in open-source?

Open-source software (OSS) is ubiquitous in the global developer community. As our data shows, OSS is used by 92% of developers. A question that comes to mind is: what exactly do developers value in OSS? In the chart below, we show which statements developers value about OSS, broken down by professional and nonprofessional developers, and enterprise and non-enterprise developers. The overarching theme for what developers value from OSS is its ability to be eternal. “To collaborate with the community, building software that outlasts even its originator” encapsulates the two statements with the greatest agreement.

The overall cost and wanting to avoid vendor lock-in/lock-out are important aspects that professional and enterprise developers in particular value in OSS, while non-enterprise developers value forking product derivatives and debugging more than the other groups. Non-professional developers do not value the overall costs element, perhaps because they have not experienced the costs involved in closed source software, whereas many professional developers have. Another aspect that non-professional developers value significantly less is avoiding vendor lock-in. This also suggests that these developers have not experienced the limitations of closed source software yet.

Appreciation of the overall costs of OSS is also highly linked with years of developer experience: only 24% of developers with less than one year of experience agree that low cost is an asset of OSS. In contrast, the percentage of developers who agree that low cost is an asset of OSS rises to 34% of developers who have between three and five years, and 43% of developers with six or more years of experience. Typically, as developers gain experience, they begin to work in different sectors, often crossing over between sectors. At this point, the flexibility that OSS offers may become crucial. 

Finally, we also see a greater proportion of non-professional developers not using OSS compared to others. This is also reflected indirectly in each of the other statements; we see that non-professional developers agree with every statement less than professional developers. This suggests that, to be truly appreciative of the benefits of OSS, you may have had to engage with it seriously, in the way professional developers do.

Where OSS is written is changing

At present, the culture of OSS is particularly strong with Western European and Israeli developers, where not a single statement is valued below the average. On the contrary, developers in North America—who, up until now, have driven the OSS movement—value contributing and interacting with the community less than average. This could suggest a cooling off of North American OSS development and a maturing of this ecosystem. 

On average, East Asian developers seem to be disengaged from the OSS movement more than developers from other regions. Only 88% of developers in this region use OSS compared to 92% globally. In general, developers in this region also value less aspects of OSS. In particular, their extremely low appreciation of the continuous support for the technology compared to others, highlights that developers in this region are apprehensive about the longevity of OSS, which partially undermines its main benefit. This apprehension is also reflected by the relatively low agreement associated with contributing. 

According to our data, South Asian developers value contributing to OSS significantly more than others. In addition, South Asia is the region with the largest proportion of developers who value collaborating and interacting with the community. This combination positions the region to be among the drivers of the next wave of OSS development. In the Middle East and Africa region, some key advantages of OSS, such as avoiding vendor lock-in and the overall low cost have not yet resonated with developers — this is despite the fact that, at least for Africa, income per capita is low compared to global averages. What assists in explaining this is this region’s proportion of professional developers and the experience of its developers. 

The Middle East and Africa, as well as South America, have roughly the same proportion of professional developers, 60.7%, in contrast to North America or Western Europe and Israel, where more than 80% of developers are professional. Non-professionals value OSS less. Similarly, developers in the Middle East and Africa are also the least experienced, on average, and years of experience in particular is linked with appreciating the low cost of OSS.

Some sectors embrace OSS while others don’t

Emergent sectors such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) stand to benefit greatly from OSS as a means of defining a common standard and exchanging ideas. Yet, we find that developers working in these two fields do not value forking/creating product derivatives, nor even collaboration in the case of VR, as much as other developers do, on average, from other fields. This could be partially explained by the lower than average agreement with the need for continuous support for a technology. When developers do not value this characteristic, it is unlikely that they are working with the mindset which would ensure long term OSS growth and desirability. 

On the other hand, developers who are building apps and extensions for third party ecosystems, on average, value contributing and forking more than developers in other sectors. Similarly, the very successful node.js runtime has facilitated other extensions and developers working in backend services really value the continuous support of OSS projects. At present, despite the large percentage of developers who use open source software, it is only in certain circumstances that the majority of developers value OSS for any given reason. Perhaps this suggests that OSS has become an expectation rather than being perceived as a gift from society at large to society at large. Observing how developers value OSS in the future would be a good litmus test for the health of open source projects. For now though, there are encouraging blooms in South Asia for example, but also software sectors of scepticism, such as in AR/VR.

Are you involved in open source? Share your experiences with us in our Developer Economics 20th edition survey!


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