Demographics of Open Source

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The open-source movement, once an IT curio, has picked up serious momentum in the past decade and is now receiving real credence among some of the largest corporate and government entities. Thus it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the open-source community is growing. But who, exactly, are the people swelling its ranks?

The precise demographics of the open-source movement are not easy to pin down, but some meta-trends emerge from various surveys, e-mail lists and other sources from this somewhat loose community. In the United States, the majority of open-source developers and users are in their late 20s and early 30s—the so-called Generation Xers—and most of them have about a decade of experience in their field. However, the age and experience levels might start to move downward over time as the number of young people who are exposed to open source goes up.

Indeed, this seems to be the case right now, said John Andrews, president of Evans Data Corp (EDC). His organization gauges the state of the open-source sector on a global basis once every six months.

“The landscape is changing rapidly,” he said. “The use of open source on a global basis is increasing every survey period, and it’s increasing in a couple of different ways. The ISV (independent software vendors) solution providers and small teams started using open source a little earlier than the large enterprises. That’s fairly obvious, since the large enterprises usually have to go through a standardization process and really make sure that these solutions fit their overall architecture. Open source is now pervasive across all of the different segments of the technical industry. A year ago, corporate enterprise guys weren’t that hot on open source, but you see it being standardized and adopted now.”

The other difference—and the one that’s really driving the numbers of the open-source community up while bringing the typical age of members down—is that the users are exposed to the products and development methodology earlier. One reason is the widespread usage of open-source software on college campuses, Andrews explained. “When we do our qualitative research, we’ll have academicians in and they’ll talk about the fact that unless Microsoft is on campus and providing a huge recruiting effort with free software, all the campuses are using open source. As you think about the future of open source and look at the academic world, there are a huge number of computer science majors and others who are on the periphery of programming that are using open source because it’s free. There’s a huge familiarity that people are gaining at a very young age.”

Another driver behind younger open source developers and users is its widespread adoption in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. According to Andrews, this is attributable at least in part to the popularity of Java (Generally, where you find Java, you’ll find open source; conversely, where you find Windows, you’ll usually find Visual Studio). The developers in that part of the world tend to be a good deal younger than in North America and Europe. “When it comes to demographics in APAC is that we also see the age of the developer being almost 10 years younger on average,” Andrews said. “Oftentimes, in a couple of countries, it’s more like 15 years younger.”

Not surprisingly, one of the main factors that has boosted open source’s popularity in all environments, whether corporate, public sector, academic or personal, is cost. Yet while the price—or lack thereof—is always a draw, the most significant reason behind adoption is often flexibility: the ability to look at the code behind the software and customize it to suit the needs of the user. Andrews said open-source processes are producing more robust solutions that are causing potential users, as well as proprietary “competitors,” to take notice.

“That’s going to put pressure on proprietary companies and offerings. There is a gap between features and functionalities of closed systems versus most of the open systems today, but we’re seeing that feature gap close at a pretty rapid rate. You’re seeing evidence of that already in the marketplace as companies like Oracle and even Microsoft (get involved in open source). It’s putting the squeeze on these guys. For example, when we look at Eclipse, it’s not on par from a feature standpoint with a Visual Studio, or IBM or Sun’s proprietary offerings, but in terms of market penetration and growth, it’s growing faster than any of those.”

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