Retro repo SourceForge learns new tricks

Reacting to feedback, SourceForge has improved its revenue-sharing download service for open source projects

In these days of distributed version control and chatty websites with clean lines, it's easy to forget the granddaddy of all open source repositories: SourceForge. Its ad-encrusted appearance hearkens back to another era, perhaps even to the point of looking retro to the Git generation. Yet SourceForge is still around, providing repositories for hundreds of thousands of communities and bandwidth for hundreds of millions of downloads. These days, it even offers Git repositories. Like it or not, SourceForge remains a cornerstone of the open source movement, serving the needs of projects of all sizes and sophistications.

Now owned by recruitment firm Dice.com, SourceForge is aware of these facts and is actively working on them. With such a large user base and a reliance on advertising, it's not easy to make radical changes. But SourceForge is talking to the community, devising new approaches, offering new tools, and -- most important -- listening to criticism.

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As an example, consider its program offering to share revenue with open source projects. Last July, I wrote about the new program to increase project satisfaction by sharing the advertising revenue arising from downloads with the project via an opt-in. I defined a benchmark and found SourceForge scoring fairly well against it. The points on which it scored badly against my benchmark mainly involved transparency about the behavior of the custom installer it was using.

Since then, SourceForge has taken those comments on board and improved the program. I had the chance to check out a preview of its new, improved beta. The Senior Director of Business Development Roberto Galoppini told me that he'd received similar feedback from many others he consulted. Balancing the revenue needs of a business with the demands of software freedom is always a fine art; how has SourceForge done taking the feedback on board?

First, it added a direct download link both for the overall package and for the individual files within it. Thus, if you prefer not to use an intermediary custom installer that can also display advertising or offer additional downloads, you can get the software you originally came for without hassle. In an ideal world, there would be no need for monetizing open source software, but this would seem a good compromise. The decision to provide a route around monetization is a relatively bold step, trading a certain amount of lost revenue for a good deal of extra kudos.

Second, SourceForge is clearer about the actions of the sideloaded apps offered by the custom installer. It is adopting a "capabilities scorecard" approach along the lines of the ones used by Android (and now Chrome) to warn users of the actions of the apps being sideloaded. Time will tell whether this information is truly useful and inspires confidence, but I think it's the right move.

Third, messages throughout the download process alert the user that a custom installer is in use -- "The installer may provide you with offers from our advertisers." If anything, SourceForge says this a little too often in its eagerness to be as transparent as possible.

Finally, and less visibly than the other changes, Galoppini tells me SourceForge is much more active in vetting -- and if necessary rejecting -- the software that gets sideloaded. Hopefully this will mean no more keystroke trackers or invasive offers.

The program remains opt-in, so most projects on SourceForge won't be using a custom installer for some time; at the end of the beta period, only three of SourceForge's 300,000 projects are using it. It seems to be more suitable for projects with smaller teams, which are more in need of the cash.

Obviously I'm delighted SourceForge has been listening, both to me and, more important, to its community members. Devising monetization approaches for open source software downloads is a tough problem, and SourceForge seems to be learning as it goes and in the process setting a standard for others to beat.

This article, "Retro repo SourceForge learns new tricks," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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