Europe’s economy benefits greatly from freely available software and hardware. According to a new analysis, the economic importance of open source in 2018 in all 27 EU countries was between 65 and 95 billion euros. The smaller value refers to the approximately 30 million open source contributions of the member states in the form of “commits” on platforms such as GitHub, with which a current version of free software is made available to other developers and the general public. The almost 100 billion also include the economic importance of contributors.
Germany at the forefront
The data come from the study on “the effects of open source software and hardware on technological independence, competitiveness and innovation in the EU”, which the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) and OpenForum Europe commissioned of the Directorate-General for Communication Networks, Content and Technologies of the EU Commission. Representatives of the two institutions presented the core results on Friday on the virtual EU Open Source Policy Summit in front.
ISI researcher Knut Blind emphasized that this is a conservative estimate. The team has always remained at the “lower edge of the economic importance” of factors related to free software and hardware. Most of the contributions in the EU came from Germany and the United Kingdom, which had not left in 2018. In this country, the economic contribution of open source is estimated under slightly different parameters at 15 billion euros per year. For comparison: the European gross domestic product totaled around 15.9 trillion euros in 2018.
“A significant benefit”
Overall, the economic time series analysis shows that the EU “derives considerable benefit” from its participation in open source development, according to the summary of the study available online at heise. This explains how the sums came about: The number of individual contributors to free software and hardware amounts to at least 260,000, which corresponds to eight percent of the almost 3.1 million EU employees in the field of computer programming. Experience shows that one third of the contributions are made by academics. All in all, it would take 16,000 full-time developers to provide the same volume of source code
On average, a contributor devotes ten percent of his working time to open source development, the analysis continues. This means that a total of 0.5 percent of all EU employees in the programming area are used to create and contribute to free hardware and software. The personnel costs for this amounted to almost 15 billion euros in the member states in 2018. In total, their more than 30 million commits represent a parallel personnel investment based on full-time equivalents amounting to almost one billion euros. However, this sum is “made available to the general public”, which eliminates the need for a new development.
According to the scientists, the data also show that the relative investments in open source “are greater, the smaller the company is”. Overall, companies with 50 or fewer employees provided almost half of the contributions in the examined sample of the most active companies, while the situation in the USA is very different. The level of engagement varies by industry and size. Over 50 percent of the contributors come from the IT industry, in which eight percent of all employees across the EU were involved in open source development. There is also a strong commitment from companies that carry out professional, scientific and technical activities.
The appeal of open source
The researchers gained further insights into the scene with a survey of around 900 participants. According to Blind, the main attraction of open source is to find technical solutions and to advance the state of the art in general. For many, it is also about avoiding dependence on individual manufacturers and building and sharing knowledge.
Those involved named particularly open standards and interoperability as well as improved access to code as advantages. Financial savings are not so relevant, the aim is to work on software with fewer errors. Blind nevertheless referred to the great potential of open source to reduce overall costs, for example in the public sector, and at the same time to strengthen digital autonomy. Open software can also make a major contribution to climate protection, for example. The added value potential is far from being exhausted and is basically easy to get.
Coordination, integration and legal security
The authors of the study, which is to be published in the near future, also give politicians over 30 recommendations. The commission should take on a stronger coordination role, build its own network and thus strengthen the developing ecosystem, explained OpenForum boss Sachiko Muto. Open source communities would have to be more closely integrated into European research and innovation guidelines, for example for the Green Deal or the Horizon Europe framework program, and funding provisions should be better geared towards small companies and startups.
Muto advised increasing legal certainty, for example reducing liability risks for developers and better protecting users. The IT security of individual components should be increased through audits, especially in the area of critical infrastructures. In view of the size of the sector, the public sector must align procurement guidelines more closely to open source. In view of the shortage of skilled workers, it is not enough just to bring tablets to classes; the students also have to learn programming.
“David becomes Goliath”
Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton had previously identified a “long list of success stories” for free software. “The best supercomputers run on Open Source”, said the Frenchman, Linux is spurring the Internet. Many companies invested in open source code “to create value for their shareholders”. The advantages for citizens, society and public administration should come even more to the fore in terms of technological sovereignty. The development approach could also be used to put artificial intelligence to the test.
A previous study from 2006 by the University of Maastricht estimated the total value of all mature open source solutions to be almost 12 billion euros. The then head of research, Luc Soete, recalled that at that time it was still about “David versus Goliath” at a time when Microsoft was denigrating Linux as a “cancerous tumor”. In the meantime, the company has shown itself to be “in love with Open Source” and the David “has become a Goliath”. The dependence on Microsoft is still a big problem in some areas of the program. For the future, Soete hopes that an open development will also extend to the medical field and especially to vaccines, where distribution is currently still “a fiasco”.
Cooperation in development
Apps for tracking contacts with corona infected people showed that open source text was easy to reuse, emphasized Daimler’s open source ambassador Mirko Böhm. During the actual development, however, the cooperation is often still limited. He regretted that large corporations could be champions in this area, but often lagged behind. Chris Wright, chief technologist at Red Hat, underlined: Open source is “the innovation machine of the global IT industry”.
When it comes to free hardware, Andrew Katz from the law firm Moorcrofts said that working on integrated circuits such as Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) is the most promising because the design of core components can be easily shared. With circuit boards and other electronic components, things get more difficult.