Open source contributors in Asia

Matt Asay (who’s Open Road blog at CNet is a great resource) points to an absolutely fascinating discussion/podcast between Jim Zemlin (of the Linux Foundation) and Linus Torvalds.

Asay was interested in Torvalds’ view on community, but I was captivated by Torvalds’ perspectives on why open source is used in Asia widely but why there is not more contribution back into the codebase of OSS projects from developers in Asia. The interview is very long, so even this excerpt is long, but this topic is a significant issue for open source software in Asia and is a key area of interest for me.

This issue is critical because the barriers to more OSS developers in Asia seem to be non-technical: language barriers or cultural barriers.  Torvalds actually thinks that the cultural barriers are greater, and I would tend to agree.  Mozilla certainly has a number of critically important Asian-based developers but I think proportionately there are much fewer Asian OSS developers than North/South American or European.

Whatever the issues are, it’s clear that there is no easy answer and that growing OSS contributors in Asia may continue to be challenging.

Jim Zemlin: One of the things that’s happening—to continue to talk about community—is Linux is starting to be more important across the globe to – whether it’s from governments who see it as a strategic way to grow with a software industry, sort of use Linux as something that can do that or its mobile device manufacturers in Taipei or One Laptop Per Child, et cetera.

One of the things that people ask a lot about is why don’t we see more global participation in the development process itself? In other words, observers say this is very North American-European focused.

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on: a) why don’t you see more of it; and, b) any ideas on how you can get more participation from folks from other geographies.

Linus Torvalds: Well, we’ve done some studies, six over the years just looking at where developers come from and one of the obvious things is people tend to come from not just populous countries, but countries with a very high density of Internet access and that is one of the reasons.

I mean, you can easily say that, yes, there’s a billion people in China, there’s a billion people in India, but China and India are not represented very well in the developer community.

But if you actually – instead of just looking at just number of people, you look at number of people who actually have good Internet access. China and India simply aren’t that big and that’s one of the issues is just connectivity.

Jim Zemlin: But proportionally, do they participate as much or is there still…?

Linus Torvalds: There are other issues too and clearly the language and cultural barriers are one of the big issues and something as simple as and maybe obvious as education.

So, the language barriers tend to be a huge problem for – well, actually, maybe more even the different cultural issues that – with Asian countries they have good penetration; some of them have huge penetration of Internet use, they have a obviously great education and they do not end up contributing a lot to open source, not the kernel, not to generally other projects either.

And that seems to be at least partly cultural and it’s really hard, then, for some of these people who have cultural barriers and a language barrier to then become actively involved. It does happen, but it certainly explains a lot of the reasons why Western Europe and the U.S. are the biggest development areas.

Jim Zemlin: Is this something that the kind of core kernel community thinks about, like, “How can we get more people involved? How can we make it easier and more accessible to get people involved?”

Linus Torvalds: It comes up every once in a while. I don’t think anybody really knows what the answer is. We’ve added some documentation. Usually the kind of initial “read me” kind of documentation: where to go to get involved, how to behave, so that’s available in a number of languages.

Whether that makes a huge deal or not, I don’t know. I suspect it doesn’t, but I also suspect that it may make people more likely to at least take a look at the project. Maybe it scares away people less when they see the project itself, at least tries to approach them. People in Asia might feel like, “Okay, I’m not fighting against this. I may have issues,” but at least they’re kind of aware of them and they’re trying to some degree. So, that’s one of the things we’ve been looking at.

That said, I mean, I actually think the cultural barrier is bigger than the language barrier and the reason I say that is especially South America has been pretty active, so it’s not that – and they don’t necessarily speak English all that much, but I think culturally they’re more closer to Europe and the U.S. which makes it easier to enter.

So – and the cultural differences I don’t think we even know how to really even approach.

6 Responses to Open source contributors in Asia

  1. Very interesting topic!

    But what’s the “cultural barrier” mentioned here exactly? I don’t think language is really the biggest problem, indeed, since I met many developers in Taiwan who are able to speak quite good English, but I admit I don’t really get the “cultural barrier” problem…

  2. I think Indians can speak better (right) English than US of A people 🙂 So, not a issue of Language here.

  3. I agree to kartik. Its more about awareness and definitely Good internet Access. I am a software Developer but still i don’t have very good Internet access at home. Its limited generally on how many MBs you can download; speed is inconsistent and not really Broadband . If we try to get into 2MB lines its really expensive.

    Second reason i believe (Not so sure) is because these are developing countries(India and China). People here worry about ‘will they get anything if they work on OpenSource?’ Working on OSS is considered as “Social Service” rather than opportunity to work on something really different and grow tech knowledge. again i say Awareness amongst developer and companies is a major issue. Software Company can definitely promote open source as not so “Free service”

  4. As a Chinese citizen, I think one of the big reason for lack of open source activities in China is job security, and a sense of security in general. Pressure is extremely high in modern day China, and when people feel threatened, they tend to give less. It’s the same reason for the lack of philanthropic activities. Language, culture and internet access are not as big issues as one might think. In China, college educated programmers most likely would be able to communicate in English, and they do know about western culture. Internet access is pretty good in cities, not so good in more rural areas, but most programmers are in the cities.

  5. and i will throw into the mix concepts of individuality and rebelliousness, more pronounced in the west than in asia, at least for a few more years… open source everything grew out of concepts of sharing, innovation, and rebelling against the system (microsoft primarily) … the sort of mind is in the young in asia, but not so much in their older brothers

    and jigar, i can definitely relate to the internet speed, i am on my reliance usb modem at about 8 KBPS

    and to kartik… um, no, i will keep quiet

    enjoy, gregory

  6. Hi,

    Gen, you can make a wiki to share OSS information in Japan on Wikia if you want!