20+ years of building on open source: Jean-Baptiste Kempf's interview

Klarissa Fitzpatrick
3 min read

Jean-Baptiste Kempf, president of VideoLan and ex-CTO of Shadow, began working with VLC in 2005. For almost two decades, Jean-Baptiste has protected VideoLan projects as purely open-source, passing over several opportunities to cash in along the way.

He spoke with Scaleway about how far open source has come since he joined VLC, the challenges it faces today, and why he sees open source as critical to the current and future health of the Internet.

The evolution of open source

When Jean-Baptiste first joined the VLC project in the early 2000s, he joked that if you spoke to Microsoft you were “evil” but if you worked on open source then you might as well be a communist.

Since then, the state of VLC (and the perspective on open source!) has much improved. Major tech companies use significant amounts of open-source code in their projects and release open-source code to the public. The Linux Foundation is a behemoth generating hundreds of millions in revenue every year.

And yet, Jean-Baptiste is still sounding the alarm over the neglect of open-source projects, be they new or old.

As Jean-Baptiste points out, very few companies (of any size) are founding open-source code or projects. Not in the true sense of the term, at any rate.

Open source: It’s not a synonym for code dump

Open source is a way of coding in which a community of devs create and maintain code. It is not a business model, but a philosophy or framework, Jean-Baptiste points out.

Using this definition, Jean-Baptiste draws a key distinction between open-source projects and what he calls code dumps – open-source projects that were already millions of lines of code long by the time they were released. Though these projects are too large to be truly collaborative, they at least stimulate the dev community to create complementary tools.

Another problem plaguing open source stems directly from upper management.

Businesses who could dedicate engineering time or money to an open-source project rarely actually do so. Content to use open-source code without giving back, management has a short-term perspective that revolves around hitting their business objectives. Even internally, companies rarely prioritize cleaning up their own code.

This short-sighted approach has resulted in legacy code, which is a major problem because some of this aging code comprises the underlying components of the Internet.

Already, security issues have come up because open-source code was not properly maintained. Jean-Baptiste cites the example of NPM: To run it, you’ll have to download hundreds of dependencies, which are unlikely to have been tested thoroughly, if at all.

How to help open-source projects

If you want to start supporting open-source projects, Jean-Baptiste has a proven framework.

  1. Use open-source code and say that you use it. It’s important for open-source projects to know that companies are using their code because it builds credibility, and attracts developers and resources.
  2. Actually contribute back to the code that you use. Jean-Baptiste suggests allowing a small percentage of your engineers’ time to build on the open-source tool. Over time, even that small amount of time can make a difference.
  3. Donate! Small or medium size open-source projects often struggle with funding. So if you and your team admire or use them, donations are a great way to give back.

Startups revitalize open source with new business models

Despite the lack of awareness about the open-source landscape, Jean-Baptiste says there is some positive movement. The startup Sentry, which creates open-source tracking and monitoring tools for software, is a great example.

Sentry has a hybrid business model that is becoming more and more common. Clients can deploy their open-source code or simply subscribe to the Sentry Software-as-a-Service. With these two options, developers get flexibility and the chance to contribute to the code, and non-developers have no trouble understanding the Software-as-a-Service business model.

These small- or medium-sized projects with clear business models and which offer the chance to contribute are a recent development Jean-Baptiste finds very encouraging.

If other entrepreneurs see it is possible to create a healthy, scalable startup based on open source, it can only mean good things for the future health of open-source projects.

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