Making open source JavaScript pay

Money isn’t everything to the success of the most popular JavaScript frameworks. Or is it?

Making open source JavaScript pay
siphotography / Getty Images

Looking at the 2019 State of JavaScript report, something stands out: Money apparently can’t buy everything. Or, at least, not every major front-end and back-end programming framework is sponsored by a big company. Sure, we have Google to thank for Angular, and Facebook gets credit for React, but what about Vue.js? Or Gatsby? Or Next.js?

While these (and other) open source projects do seem to suggest a future without Big Corps shoveling Big Money into open source, the reality is a bit more nuanced. For the developers looking to pay their way through open source, however, reality isn’t nuanced at all. For every Vue.js founder Evan You making $16,000 per month with Patreon contributions, there are thousands of developers struggling to scrape together $16 for the important open source work they’re doing.

For these developers, and for open source in general, the answer seems to be: You need to get a job, as Linux Foundation exec Chris Aniszczyk has said.

Money, it’s a gas

Look around the open source world today and money seems to power everything. Kubernetes is written by big companies. Ditto Linux, MySQL, MongoDB, etc. While some of the most popular open source technologies are driven by single vendors that plow copious cash into building the project, many others involve a range of corporate contributors.

But then there’s the JavaScript framework world, which seems to buck this trend. Here are the front-end frameworks and their relative popularity, as measured in the 2019 State of JavaScript survey cited above:

javascript front end frameworks State of JavaScript

And here are the back-end frameworks:

javascript back end frameworks State of JavaScript

Yes, there are projects with significant corporate backing, but there are also a number of counter examples, projects with broad adoption but “narrow” funding. Some of these, like Gatsby, have started to attract venture funding, but others, like Vue.js, have stuck with a contribution model.

The problem with this model, even when it seems to work, may come from the all-too-corporate expectations users may place on the developers running the project.

Money, it’s a hit

In a recent DigitalOcean survey developers were asked, “Are you concerned with the level of involvement from major tech players in open source?” Of the 34.2 percent that said “No,” the reasons were:

  • They provide for the open source community
  • They have good motivations and deliver
  • They contribute the amount they pledge

Of the 40.5 percent of developers surveyed who said “Yes” to being concerned about major tech players in open source, the reasons are:

  • Their intentions are self-serving
  • By using restrictive licenses, they achieve an unfair competitive advantage
  • They are hard to trust since they are corporations

Throwing out the second reason because it’s almost entirely without basis in fact (it’s typically the smaller companies that resort to restrictive licenses, not the large ones), the first and third reasons basically translate into trust issues. In other words, does this company’s interests align with my own?

Which brings us back to funding open source.

Who’s gonna fix this thing?

There is a serious mismatch between the expectations of developers, especially younger developers, and open source maintenance, as shown in the DigitalOcean survey:

digitalocean survey DigitalOcean

See the problem between the apparent malaise with corporate involvement and the all-too-corporate demands on open source maintenance? With vanishingly rare exceptions, you’re not going to get a steady drumbeat of updates and bug fixes for a project unless someone is getting paid to do that work. It has always been thus. From way back in GNOME-land or the HTTP web server, the fastest-moving open source projects have nearly always been developed by people employed to contribute, not volunteers.

Because, after all, that rent check isn’t going to pay itself.

They’re giving none away

Because of this pesky Maslovian hierarchy of needs (“I need to eat”) and its conflict with open source users’ hierarchy of demands (“You need to deal with my pull request”), useful open source software tends to find corporate backing. Evan You and Vue.js are an exception, not the rule. And even there, Vue.js got early support from Laravel, not to mention ongoing financial backing from others, in part inspired by high-profile adopters like Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, and others.

It turns out that writing great software costs money. Even open source.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform