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How are Open Source Software Projects Surviving the Recession?

The challenging U.S. economic recession has hit just about every segment of our economy--so how's it been affecting open source software development projects and their contributors?

Maybe not too badly, according to an anecdotal, unscientific survey of three well-known projects--KDE.org, GNOME.org and SourceForge.net.

Though these projects are merely just a snapshot of all the thousands of open source projects out there, they are among the most popular and can arguably be viewed as barometers of the overall community.

Aaron Seigo, a full-time KDE.org developer who is sponsored by Oslo, Norway-based Qt Software, said KDE.org isn't seeing any big drops in its contributors, despite the economy.

"We track these numbers pretty closely," Seigo said. "The one effect we have seen is that people have had a harder time coming to our in-person conferences. Travel is more expensive lately and people tend not to travel so much when things are tighter."

Otherwise, the project isn't seeing any dips in participation rates, he said. In July, KDE.org had more than 12,000 changes--called commits--contributed to the project code base by developers. That's up from 10,800 commits in June. Over the past year, the commit rate has ranged from 8,000 to 11,000 per month, Seigo said.

"That's been pretty steady with a slow increase," he said. "That's really what we've been seeing the last few years." Small drops in contributors are expected and are not unusual periodically as development stops just before the release of a new version.

One thing that's kept excitement and participation up in the project is the development of KDE 4.0, which began about three years ago and brought in a lot of new people, he said.

"With KDE 4.0 we really put a greater emphasis on what we were trying to achieve," he said. "People got excited to participate and as good results came out, more people joined the project. Regardless of the economic factors, the open source community lives and dies by how well it manages its community."

In general, lots of open source projects and companies are doing well despite the economy, Seigo said. "Red Hat even recently joined the New York Stock Exchange, and it made that jump during the downturn," he said. "[Such progress] depends on the companies that are involved, not on the economic slowdown. I think in large part it's because free software engineering is in its growth phase. We're not a saturated market, and therefore we are growing."

Stormy Peters, the executive director of the GNOME Foundation, said there haven't been any drops in participation rates by developers within the GNOME community. "I'm not seeing any changes," she said. "If it surprised me, it would surprise me in the other way"--by expecting to see gains in participation rates due to out-of-work or furloughed developers who might have more time to work on open source projects to keep up their skills and make contributions. "We're not seeing that in any big way."

The project has more than 400 confirmed GNOME contributors, according to the foundation.

"I don't think it's a surprise that the free software world is healthy," Peters said. "People work on free software projects because they believe in what they are trying to do and unless they can't contribute, they will continue to contribute time and skill to the projects regardless of the economy."

At SourceForge.net, the situation is similar--there haven't been any noticeable participation drop-offs due to economy--said Ross Turk, the group's director of community. "It's plausible that people are not as active due to the economy, but there's no way to be sure based on the available data," he said.

What the group is seeing, though, is that the number of start-ups for new open source software projects is "continually climbing," he said.

"For the first quarter of 2009, we've had more projects registered than we've ever had before," Turk said. As of February, more than 230,000 software projects were posted on the site, with some two million developers contributing. "That tells me that people are coming up with new ideas and that they're working on new ideas. It tells me that people are still interested in starting open source projects."

"In general, the consumption of open source software is very strong," he said. "Commercial open source is growing because … now the opportunities are really good," Turk said. "A lot of [user] companies have IT budgets that are declining, so then they look for cheaper alternatives," including open source.

 

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