A few months ago, Elizabeth Warren proposed the dissolution of major tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Google. According to her, “[u]nwinding these mergers will promote healthy competition in the market — which will put pressure on big tech companies to be more responsive to user concerns, including about privacy.”
For many of the luminaries residing in Silicon Valley, the solution to combating Elizabeth Warren’s proposal may be to hope she doesn’t get elected or brace for a drawn out legal battle not unlike the one IBM fought in the 60’s and 70’s. If the latter option is chosen, the best bet for these big tech companies may be to show how their conglomeration of assets actually benefit the tech industry and the world at large. This goes beyond rehashing tired slogans; the proof invariably has to be displayed in 1s and 0s–in the tech world’s version of pro bono work, and that’s open source.
In a way, the natural progression of technological advancements like cloud computing have forced some companies–namely, Microsoft–to participate in open source. Still, one can hardly argue that a company like Microsoft, which once strongly opposed open source, has not befitted from finally taking the plunge. The benefit is not a monetary one, but one of good-will. This year alone, Microsoft has curried favor with devs by launching GitHub sponsors, a program that will allow users to donate money to their favorite contributors; and releasing open source tools that have been met with a warm reception, one such tool being a new Windows terminal. If you doubt that Microsoft is proud about their foray into open source, then you only have to look at the recent report by Jeff Wilcox, a software engineer at Microsoft. He mentions that approximately 25,000 Microsoft employees contribute to various open source projects, a 10x increase from 2015 when only 2,500 engineers worked on open source.
Microsoft’s example has also been taken up by Facebook, a company derided in the media, but one that has been beloved by a segment of developers due to notable open source contributions like React. We can go on and on about what company contributes to what tool, but the point is that many tech giants have given back to the community and have released APIs for other developers to tinker around with. Why is this significant? Contribution to open source slightly undermines the argument that tech giants are creating an unhealthy competitive environment. Conversely, their contributions may allow burgeoning startups to use cutting edge tools they would not otherwise have access to. One notable example of this is a tool that the NSA released called Ghidra. It’s an advanced reverse engineering tool that should cost thousands of dollars to use but was released to the public for free. The impact was immediate:
The good things:
– The decompiler is fucking awesome.
– The decompiler supports anything that you can disassemble.
– Everything is fully integrated.
– Multi-binaries projects with version control.
— Joxean Koret (@matalaz) March 6, 2019
The NSA is not a company, but their payroll is bankable by tech giants who can use the talents of their employees to create various open source projects that cater to the needs of developers.
In the end, skyrocketing GitHub activities may not be enough to deter the government from breaking up these major tech companies. One cannot ignore the fact that vast sums of money pooled in a few hands can be used to buyout potential rivals or clone their business models in order to make them obsolete. These are the antitrust practices that have been the focus of Warren’s position against tech companies. One can argue that a greater pool of companies can allow for competition in the marketplace as well as in the open source space as companies vye for public approval. Or, perhaps, these new companies may be too consumed with gaining a percent in market share to dedicate time to making large open source contributions, shifting the burden on overworked hobbyists and contributors.
It may be that standing on the shoulders of giants isn’t altogether a terrible thing. For whatever faults these giants may have, we cannot fault them for the giant contributions they’ve left behind.