FUNDING THE FREE
Linux Format|October 2020
FUNDING THE FREE
Jonni Bidwell delves into the thorny issues surrounding funding open-source projects and urges you to support your favourite free software.
Jonni Bidwell

For many of us, the price tag was a key part of what got us into free software. But giving everything away for free does not a viable business plan make, and many successful free software projects got that way by discovering sustainable funding streams. These might be in the form of donations, subscriptions, sponsorship or merchandise (there’s no better way to support your favourite project than owning a mug with their logo emblazoned on it). Or it might be in the form of a paid-for, premium version, which may include extra support or extra features.

We regularly run features telling you to  ditch proprietary services and join the self-hosted revolution. But those services, be they  Gmail, Dropbox or Zoom, are all free, and  running your own will cost you in time (email  is still hard, by the way) and infrastructure  demands. Of course, numerous alternative  services have popped up that, for a small fee,  will provide these kind of services using open  source tooling and without dubious data  slurping practices. So in many ways the  tables have turned. And there’s no doubt that  there’s value in free software.

Covid-19 has understandably made this  landscape yet more difficult to navigate, so  we’ll take a look at some initiatives that have  been set up to help projects that are  struggling as a result. And of course, we’ve  got plenty of advice on how you can help.

You’ll have read in our news section about the Covid-related layoffs at Mozilla. The fight for a free and open internet is tough and we hope the streamlined Mozilla Foundation can continue its dedication to it. We’re perhaps a long way from the enthusiasm that saw a two-page ad in the New York Times announcing the release of Firefox 1.0, but let’s hope our favourite browser continues to innovate and impress. Most of Mozilla’s income is generated by search revenue deals. Right now Google is Firefox’s default search engine in the US and UK, Yandex in Russia and Baidu in China.

If you think of Google as a rival browser maker (or if you see them as enemies of privacy and freedom), then they and Mozilla seem like odd bedfellows. But all’s fair in love and war, and it’s a deal that benefits both parties and has been extended for another three years. From 2015 to 2017 Yahoo!, in the US, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and for the princely sum of $375 million a year, enjoyed the default spot. It’s understood that the arrangement with Google involves it handing over somewhere slightly north of this figure. For what it’s worth, Google also pays the open-source Adblock Plus to not block its ads. Mozilla’s new revenue centric focus will hopefully see it continue to thrive, starting with its VPN offerings and ongoing partnership with Pocket magazines.

The cost of LibreOffice

Last month we saw how LibreOffice is funded by the Document Foundation, and how that model may change in the future. LibreOffice is a huge project (thousands of contributors, millions of lines of code and hundreds of millions of users) and it’s not something that can be sustained without considerable resources.

The Linux Foundation attracts membership fees from partner companies and events to support kernel development (they pay the salaries of Linus Torvalds and Greg Kroah-Hartman) and the growing number of other open-source projects under its umbrella. Its mission is to cultivate further industry adoption of FOSS, so many member projects are in rapidly developing areas, such as cloud, automotive, security and machine learning.

Under the Linux Foundation, considerable efforts have been made to secure the low-level projects that essentially run the world. In particular, the Civil Infrastructure Project (CIP) aims to provide Super Long Term Support (SLTS) for designated kernel releases. The eventual goal is for this is to support hardware that may be in service upwards of 50 years, much longer than the decade offered by the most supportive of enterprise distros today. The first release to receive the SLTS treatment is 4.4, which since its release back in 2016 has seen 235 (and counting) point releases and will be supported until at least 2026. This kind of initiative will encourage forward-looking managers in the transport, infrastructure and energy sectors to embrace Linux.

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October 2020