The Ultimate Guide to Open Source
In this article, Jaewoong (skydoves) takes you on a comprehensive tour of the open-source ecosystem, project lifecycles, and venture strategies.
In the modern software world, open-source projects have gained immense value, helping conserve significant resources in software development. Open-source solutions have played pivotal roles in the success of startups, aiding them in various aspects, from optimizing development resources for timely project launches to occasionally contributing to business strategies.
As more companies integrate open-source software into their projects, more developers realize the importance of open-source solutions in achieving their software development and business objectives. However, despite understanding the significance of open-source software, many developers need to become more familiar with the inner workings of the open-source ecosystem and how to engage in these communities actively.
In this article, Jaewoong, an open-source engineer specializing in Android and Kotlin, tours the open-source ecosystem, project lifecycles, and monetization strategies based on his extensive experience.
The Open Source Ecosystem
While many people may associate open-source with “free source code”, the open-source ecosystem is far more complex than simply opening your code.
The concept of open source encourages individuals and organizations to contribute to the project by providing transparency not only into the source code but also into the project's issues and the progress of tasks. Thus, 'source' encompasses more comprehensive meanings than 'code' regarding the discussion between maintainers, documentation, and all the efforts to maintain the project.
This accessibility allows anyone to explore open-source projects, empowering them to share their diverse developer experiences and use cases across various products utilizing open-source solutions. This exchange of information greatly benefits open-source maintainers and fosters a healthy communication ecosystem between maintainers and consumers of open-source software.
Open Source as a Community
One of the fundamental pillars of the open-source ecosystem is community. The community around a particular project encourages developers to engage in discussions, share their user experiences, and propose new approaches to enhance the project.
Three distinct roles comprise an open-source community, and each role can take advantages below:
- Maintainers: Open-source maintainers can gain insights into various use cases and real-world experiences across a wide range of businesses and industries from consumers —experiences maintainers may not have encountered themselves. These insights provide valuable guidance for determining the next phases in maintaining open-source projects.
- Consumers: Open-source consumers can be organizations, individuals, or even other open-source maintainers. They have the ability to engage with project maintainers or other consumers to discuss complex challenges they encounter and suggest practical approaches to strengthen the project. Their discussions and feedback are immensely valuable to maintainers, even if they don't directly contribute code to the project.
- Potential Consumers: The open-source community can serve as an excellent resource for potential consumers. Those who are looking for an open-source solution to incorporate into their projects can assess the project's compatibility and fit their needs by exploring other use cases and compatibility information within the community. An active community can serve as a strong indicator for potential consumers as they assess whether an open-source solution is a suitable choice for their long-term needs.
As a maintainer, if you aim to broaden the influence of your open-source project and facilitate its adoption by a diverse array of global projects, cultivating a dynamic open-source community and being receptive to community feedback is essential.
For those wishing to contribute to an open-source project as consumers, you can actively participate in the community by sharing your user experiences. This might include insights into how you've enhanced feature development for your product using the open-source solution, which is a valuable contribution in itself.
Overcome ‘Open’ Phobia
Many beginners often feel hesitant about ‘opening' their code or engaging in discussions in a public space when they first enter the open-source world. This hesitation arises from concerns that their code or opinions might reflect poorly on their coding skills, careers, or other qualities.
However, it's essential to remember that you don't need to strive for perfection. There's no such thing as 'perfect code' or 'perfect opinions' in the world. Even major tech companies and organizations sometimes make mistakes like errors or typos in their documentation.
This symptom is quite natural for beginners, so-called 'open' phobia. However, you can easily overcome this fear and join the open-source community with several small steps. In this open-source world, you'll gather invaluable experiences while collaborating with developers from around the globe.
Make Your First Contribution
Contribution doesn't solely entail enhancing the codebase by writing fantastic code or improving its architecture and resolving bugs. A great way to start contributing to open-source projects is by immersing yourself in the community and contemplating minor tasks you can undertake to support the project.
Suppose you encounter bugs or issues or have suggestions to enhance the developer experience. In that case, you can actively participate in the project by creating an issue on GitHub. Most maintainers are more than willing to review and consider your contributions.
If you are already utilizing an open-source library, sharing your experiences, along with details like your project's name and how you've integrated the library, can provide invaluable insights to maintainers. Your input serves as a cornerstone for fortifying the open-source project, making it a significant and valuable contribution.
Compiling a list of open-source libraries you use and transparently documenting their licenses within your application is another valuable means of contributing to the open-source community. While it may seem more passive compared to other activities, this effort remains instrumental in fostering a well-organized and thriving open-source ecosystem.
Embrace Code Transparency
While many individuals hesitate to make their code transparent on GitHub due to the fear of judgment or the prospect of receiving feedback from others, actually receiving comments from other developers can be a challenge, especially if you haven't been actively maintaining your open-source projects for an extended period or haven't engaged extensively with the community.
If someone does take the time to leave a comment or highlight issues in your code, view it as a valuable opportunity. This feedback opens the door to constructive discussions, allowing you to reevaluate your code from various perspectives and in different environments. It serves as a valuable growth opportunity, not only for you personally but also for the advancement of your project.
If you've already made your code public, try to share it across various communities with friends and fellow developers to gather feedback. While it may seem intimidating, remember that if you aim to create an exceptional book, you should actively seek reviews from readers. Similarly, for code development, diverse feedback is key to improvement.
Open Source Software Lifecycle
The most successful open-source software is characterized by systematic and sustained management over an extended period. Therefore, it's essential to establish suitable lifecycles for developing your open-source software.
If you're looking for inspiration on how to set up and manage lifecycles for your project, you can easily adapt Jaewoong's open-source lifecycle as outlined in the article Becoming A Successful Android Librarian. This lifecycle comprises four fundamental phases, enabling you to efficiently manage your open-source software right from the start.
The provided lifecycles encompass the phases from Design to Release, with the cycle iterating through each phase for every new release. Each phase serves a specific purpose:
Design: This initial phase involves translating your ideas into blueprints and assessing your project's feasibility. It is the most crucial phase, as practical design and planning can significantly reduce resource requirements for subsequent stages. If you design APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) before specifying implementations, you can drastically ease the burden of the Development phase. However, if you are new to API and architecture design, it is sufficient to gather your ideas and ensure the feasibility of each item on your list.
Develop: This phase includes both implementation and testing. Implementation involves building core features following your Design specifications. Your API designs or development approaches may evolve during this phase based on new insights or ideas. Testing is essential to confirm that these core features function correctly, and it’s achieved by creating unit tests and integration tests with previous projects.
Prepare: Once your APIs have been thoroughly tested, you must prepare for their publication. As we’ve discussed, open source extends beyond merely sharing your code in a public space. Users will assess your project to determine its suitability for their needs. Thus, you must engage with users by providing comprehensive project information, including documentation and a README file for your API. Consider creating an issue and pull-request templates to guide external contributors and opening GitHub Discussions on your repository to facilitate API discussions and gather feedback.
Release: When your API is ready for publication, it's time to release your package on public repositories, enabling users to access and integrate it into their projects easily. This is the final phase, and it is essential to ensure there are no issues with updates before delivering your product to the market. Thorough testing and validation are crucial during this phase to guarantee a smooth release.
Remember that the recommended open-source lifecycle provided here is just a suggestion.
You can discover or create a suitable lifecycle that aligns with your goals. Once you've established stability in your chosen open-source lifecycle, it's essential to promote utilizing your software by sharing it across various communities.
Marketing and Continual Feedback Loop
Many people commonly associate 'Marketing' with a strategy primarily tailored for service-based products. However, open-source software is also a product designed for developers. Consequently, it should also incorporate appropriate marketing strategies to attract users.
Once you've published your open-source software and you are progressing through its lifecycle, it becomes imperative to actively promote your solution within various communities, aiming to reach as many potential users as possible.
You can naturally attract library users to your GitHub repository by consistently maintaining the project, releasing new updates, and building a dedicated community through GitHub Discussions. However, you can also extend your reach by engaging with other platforms to gather users more broadly.
One common approach is to share written articles about your open-source projects. Nowadays, many people are using Medium, which is among the most popular open platforms specifically designed for discovering articles and sharing knowledge.
Publishing articles provides a great avenue for elucidating the practical benefits of your library in addressing intricate challenges.
For example, you can reveal fun facts about your library or share informal anecdotes that can pique interest more effectively than reading overly formalized documentation. This approach resonates particularly well with developers facing similar issues.
You can also leverage platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, or other thriving developer communities where you can actively engage in discussions related to your topics. Remember that your solution targets developers, so it's crucial to identify the right audience to expand your user base.
Profitable Open Source
It can be difficult to imagine a viable business model or profit generation from open-source projects, as they revolve around freely sharing code. However, numerous strategies can create significant opportunities for successful open-source, benefiting individuals and businesses in many ways.
Individual Profitability in Open Source
It can be difficult to imagine a viable business model or profit generation mechanism for open-source projects, as they revolve around freely sharing code. However, strategies that you’re going to cover in the sections below can create opportunities for profitable open-source, benefiting individuals and businesses in many ways.
GitHub Sponsors is a platform that empowers individuals and companies to invest in the open-source projects they depend on or find promising. This is another way to contribute to the open-source ecosystem by supporting maintainers financially, which allows maintainers to devote more resources to maintain their projects.
Indeed, turning open-source projects into profitable endeavors requires significant effort, along with building a sizable user base capable of sponsoring your projects. One of the most common strategies is securing sponsorship from companies within related industries that align with your open-source solution.
The companies sponsoring open-source maintainers can expect organically acquired users to be converted to their own products at a higher rate. This is a win-win strategy between maintainers and companies who want to advertise their products and brands. Therefore, you can proactively approach companies willing to sponsor your project and promote their products.
These days, it's possible to discover full-time open-source developers on GitHub, thanks to the significant impact of GitHub Sponsors on the open-source ecosystem. This initiative has empowered maintainers to concentrate on advancing their projects.
On the other hand, you can also explore opportunities to boost your individual income as a developer when seeking jobs related to SDK development. If you've been actively maintaining your open-source libraries, these experiences can prove invaluable in crafting SDKs. This is because they share similar development lifecycles and approaches.
Open Source in Organizations
Many companies keep away from open-source projects due to concerns about potential code leaks from their projects, or about complicated open-source license problems. Additionally, in B2B scenarios, there can be added complexities that arise in dealing with customers.
Nonetheless, open-source projects offer numerous advantages from a business perspective. One significant benefit is the opportunity to establish a strong brand presence. Building exceptional open-source projects allows companies to extend their brand's reach within developer communities, making it an effective strategy for developer marketing.
In most cases, the audience encompasses not only potential customers but also potential future employees. This makes open-source projects particularly attractive to other developers. From this perspective, open-source can also be highly beneficial for hiring new positions.
Suppose your organization is interested in starting open-source projects but unsure where to begin. In that case, a good approach is to begin by isolating specific components from your existing projects and making them more customizable. Even if the solution seems too modest to stand alone as an independent library, it's still worth developing and can serve as an excellent starting point.
Even if your library initially addresses a relatively minor problem, once it enters the market and gains gradual adoption among developers, you will begin to receive valuable feedback, issue reports, and feature requests. This ongoing interaction will allow you to enhance the library continuously.
Consequently, your original project can also benefit from the improvements in the library. This dual role of being both a maintainer and a consumer of the improved library serves as an excellent starting point to actively contribute to the open-source ecosystem with your organization.
Stream’s Open Source Approaches
One of Stream's most significant distinctions from other SaaS platforms is its strong support for open-source projects. Stream actively contributes to the open-source ecosystem by publishing a range of projects, including their core products, on GitHub.
Publishing SDKs as open-source projects has its share of both advantages and disadvantages. However, Stream acknowledges several distinct advantages, with transparency being a key factor. Many of our customers have expressed their preference for Stream SDKs precisely because of the transparency. They appreciate the ability to delve into the internal code implementations, granting them greater flexibility in their own implementations.
Stream also builds open-source projects to demonstrate their SDKs and share modern technologies at the same time. Notable examples are chatgpt-android, WhatsApp Clone Compose, and WebRTC Android, showcasing trended tech stacks using the Stream Chat SDK for Compose.
Those open-source focus on helping the community by demonstrating many Android skills and also a great strategy to raise a higher conversion to the Stream Dashboard directly. This can have a good impact from both the open-source ecosystem and marketing perspective.
If your team also considers similar strategies and aims to join the open-source ecosystem and market your products, you can take inspiration from Stream's projects as a benchmark!
This article provides a comprehensive overview of the open-source world, catering to beginners with insights into the ecosystem, offering guidance on open-source lifecycles for maintainers, and presenting strategies to turn open-source into successful ventures for both individuals and businesses. Hope this article brings you one step closer to the open-source world and, more importantly, inspires you to dive into the open-source ecosystem.
As always, happy coding!
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