Big Tech Controls Many Major Open Source Projects. Is That a Problem?

According to GitHub, the top ten projects on its platform have thousands of individual contributors… but are mostly managed by major tech companies. Is this a problem for tech?

Of the top ten projects on GitHub, seven are controlled by Microsoft and Google. Facebook’s React Native sits in second place, while Ansible and NPM are the only two projects not planted by a major tech company. (Two of the fastest-growing open source projects are from Microsoft and Google, respectively.)

Is it problematic that Silicon Valley’s biggest tech giants command 80 percent of the top ten open source projects? David Habusha, VP of Product for WhiteSource, tells Dice: “This phenomenon is not necessarily bad. It generates open source alternatives and a choice to the community.”

Habusha points to the Eclipse IDE as an example. A popular option for developers, it was open-source and well-maintained by an open source foundation… but Microsoft saw an opportunity.

“Consider the fact that, in the IDE market, there was already a leading open source IDE, Eclipse, which is supported by the Eclipse Foundation,” he adds. “Microsoft couldn’t allow itself to maintain a closed environment [in] Visual Studio. If you take Visual Studio Code, for example, which is one of the largest open source projects on GitHub, it shifted the developer community to use a modern, lightweight IDE that integrates well with other Microsoft platforms such as Azure Cloud and Azure DevOps.”

This is something we see across major open-source projects maintained by large tech companies. TensorFlow is a Google product; Azure is Microsoft’s cloud option; Angular feeds Google’s machine; React Native leans deeply into Facebook’s tech stack.

“This phenomenon is not necessarily bad,” Habusha says. “It’s not just about controlling platforms. It’s about acknowledging the fact that developers today are more important than ever. It generates open source alternatives and a choice to the community. While these large software vendors stand behind these large projects, developers can be part of these projects and influence their future. It also provides transparency into how these projects are being written and maintained, and more importantly drive better quality and security as these vendors are committed to support these projects.”

There are elephants in the room, though. It’s important to remember Microsoft now owns GitHub. Though GitHub has continued to flourish and add several really nice features for developers, that it’s owned by a major tech company that also happens to manage several of the top open-source projects is concerning to some. A Digital Ocean survey of developers shows a disconnect between companies and tech professionals; 71 percent of respondents said their companies expected them to use open-source projects day-to-day, but only 34 percent said their companies gave them time to contribute to open-source projects.

Then there’s Apple, which has taken to patenting features for Swift while letting the language remain-open source and be guided by an open community. Apple’s Ted Kremenek argues patents help safeguard the language against other companies who may flood the project to commandeer the language.

Trust is key. If you believe these tech companies are doing the right thing, and will in the future, then their management of open-source projects is less concerning. Just know those firms will always angle those projects to ultimately suit their needs.