China And Open Source

There hasn’t been much time for settling in the past 8 years through which I called Shanghai my home base. Friends came and went, jobs changed, and so did apartments, but being a geek and taking part in local tech events hasn’t. Open Source has probably been the only constant along this near decade. Since I often get asked about OSS and China, I thought I would lay out my thoughts here (and, in the future, do the lazy thing of pointing people at this post).

As far as I can remember, Open Source wasn’t that popular either in the Western world a decade ago. From my days as a student, I remember the constant FUD against it. Employers didn’t give a damn about whether or not you were familiar with Linux or if you had contributed to an OSS project. If you had some experience with Java, that was good enough. SourceForge was the de facto platform to host such projects and Github wouldn’t be around for another few years.

Things in the US and Europe are now very different. The barriers of entry for English-speaking developers are much lower with an abundance of high quality, free and user-friendly resources and tools. The reputation incentives (more about this in The Cathedral and the Bazaar) are reinforced by the industry; it is not uncommon for companies to ask job applicants for their Github page or Open Source contributions. You can throw an event in 5 minutes on and expect a decent amount of people to show up, even for niche topics.

Not so much in China.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: China only started opening up to the rest of the world 3 decades ago, notably through the economic reform of 1978. It’s been busy at catching up with the rest of the world and in the last few years became the largest Internet population in the world. Fine.

Scale doesn’t equate to culture. There are a number of things that have been preventing OSS to really catch on:

The demand from companies is quickly shifting, you just have to take a look at companies like Taobao, Dianping or Douban to know that (Baidu was left aside intentionally). It is hardly impacting things yet though. I actually believe that this tension is a good indicator of business opportunities.

Now this is not to say that there are no local initiatives. Especially in first tier cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen…), you can find active local communities. They do however usually suffer from one of the following problems:

Things have been quickly improving in the last few years. Taobao, highly regarded within local tech circles, is embracing Open Source and leading the way on how to do it right. I expect this to only accelerate and am prepared to be blown away in a few years from now when the Chinese hacker culture has solidified. You should too.

Shameless plug: we are throwing the monthly Hacker News meetup and Open Source meetup here in Shanghai. If you’re a geek, join and help.