This post is part two of a multipart exploration of “open source in China”. If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of or thought about China’s open source ecosystem, I recommend reading Part I of this series, “Open Source in China: The Players”, so that you can have a sense of who the major companies and organizations that move and shake that ecosystem are. (See Part III "Open Source in China: The Trends", if you want to jump ahead.)

This post focuses on how open source factors into the overall market incentives and competitive dynamics that these players play in, thus “the game”. In a future post, I will discuss emerging trends and macro geopolitical implications.

The complex dynamics of open source in China can be more easily understood if we break things down into two areas: what the market wants, what the government wants.

What the Market Wants

Big Tech

For any large tech company, building a sticky ecosystem and platform is necessary to dominate the market. That calculus is no different for the Chinese tech giants. Of the ones with a decent open source presence that I highlighted in my previous post -- Alibaba, Baidu, Bytedance, Didi Chuxing, Huawei, Meituan Dianping, Tencent, Xiaomi -- they all have their own core domain but all encroach upon the others’ core domains as well. The competition is fierce and cutthroat with a lot of overlap. To become a sticky platform, you need to build an ecosystem. And strategically speaking, open sourcing technologies can effectively drive ecosystem formation.

One of Tencent’s open source projects, wepy (a framework to build mini-programs inside WeChat) is a good example. For WeChat to become the dominant platform, the app OS within the mobile OS, it needs developers to build more mini-programs to make WeChat something users can’t lie out. The best way to attract developers to build is to open source and maintain a framework like wepy. The strategic consideration is similar to why Apple, a company not known for open sourcing much of anything, open sourced Swift to incentivize developers to build more apps to make iOS a more valuable and sticky platform.

A quick scan of which GitHub project repositories are pinned can give you a quick sense of how these companies are prioritizing open source to support their core business. And if there’s no pinned project or active maintenance, which is the case for quite a few of these big tech companies, it’s an indicator that they don’t quite know what to do with open source and how to harness its power to build and benefit their ecosystem.

There’s one big tension here: platform lock-in. Any sort of lock-in, be it platform, vendor, or something else, is directly in conflict with the core value proposition and community expectation of open source. And developers eventually vote with their feet (or fingers) on whether a technology is true open source, or dependent on a specific platform, thus fake open source. To continue with the Swift example, its success is very much connected to the fact that it works on both Apple’s platforms and Linux, the widely-adopted open source operating system. How Tencent’s wepy and other big tech sponsored open source projects fare in its true open-source-ness remains to be seen.

Startups

Unlike big tech companies, where open source is done in service of their core business, for commercial open source startups, open source is in their DNA. It isn’t one strategic initiative out of many; it is who they are. On top of that, these startups need to make money from the open source projects they drive, unlike big tech, where the connection between open source and revenue generation is several steps removed.

Because most of the Chinese commercial open source startups are less than five years old, it’s a stretch to say their open source activities are building a platform just yet. Thus, there's also less concern for any platform lock-in from users, which helps with technology adoption.

Open source, as a software development strategy, tends to yield the strongest and most robust technology over time. So by and large, these startups are racing in the open to make their open source technology more mature, which will naturally help with commercialization down the road. Some of the most active projects, like TiDB (by PingCAP) and Apache Kylin (by Kyligence), have improvements and changes made every week if not every day. That level of activity is rarely present in big tech open source projects, where most of them are untouched for months.

Talent Acquisition & Retention

Open source is a great way to recruit and retain technical talent, and all the Chinese tech players who’ve embraced open source on some level are trying to maximize that benefit. A commercial open source startup routinely hires engineers who’ve made contributions to its open source project first. Big tech companies do the same. Every company’s recruiters scan through active and well-respected open source projects for engineers they can poach. Once successfully hired, companies with a decent portfolio of open source projects can better retain the talent by allowing them to contribute to open source as at least a portion of their work. Developers generally like to both work with open source technologies and contribute back to them. The process also helps them build a public collection of their work, a following among other engineers, and pave the way for better job prospects in the future. The psychology and incentive are not unlike an artist or musician.

It’s worth noting that talent acquisition via open source is not only happening domestically in China but abroad as well. By default, all open source projects are public and global, and so are the people who work on them. Open source projects are where developers from everywhere come together, which makes open source arguably the strongest technical talent pool in the world.

What the Government Wants

The Chinese central government plays an outsized role in the country’s technological development. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. However, there are complex nuances to how the government’s vision and plan translate into tangible implementations on the ground. The Chinese governmental apparatus is often viewed from the outside as a monolith. It’s not.

The most relevant central government department is the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). MIIT has embraced open source. A quick search of the term “open source” on the MIIT’s website will yield many news releases of officials supporting open source in the context of cloud computing, big data, AI, and other areas. Those news releases may be terse and bland to read, but their importance lies in their very existence as signals of approval.

Why the central government would embrace open source is rather straightforward: it prefers to favor flexible technologies that aren’t tied to certain vendors, companies, or countries, so it can control and shape them at will. The thinking here is not that different from the rationale behind any large enterprise’s adoption of open source, in or outside China. “Self-reliance” as a national theme and technological imperative will be front and center for China for many years to come. This shift has been happening for some time, but accelerated by the U.S.-China trade war and Huawei sanctions. This acceleration has pushed strategic industries, e.g. banking, insurance, telecom, to more quickly adopt either domestic technology or open source technology, but most preferably domestic open source technology. All these shifts are leading to a boom in usage and business for both the big tech players and small commercial open source startups that I’ve mentioned before.

One important governmental player that is usually overlooked is the provincial government. While big, bold plans from the central government -- One Belt One Road, Made in China 2025, China Standards 2035 -- grab the most headlines, how these plans get carried out domestically depend on the competency and track record of provincial governments. Provincial governments compete for the resources that come out of these plans. They also have a decent amount of freedom when it comes to implementation details. And by doing a good job, the provinces get wealthier and the officials who got the credit tend to rise up the ranks.

In terms of tech, the two provinces that have stood out so far are Zhejiang, where Alibaba and Netease are headquartered, and Guangzhou, where Huawei and Tencent are headquartered. Beijing and, to a lesser extent, Shanghai are the other two tech hubs, but they are cities directly governed by the central government with no provincial layer in between. Given how important open source is to the overall technology vision of the country, any plans or initiatives that come from the top will likely filter down to companies based in these places first.

There are obviously many more nuances to how various levels and departments of the Chinese government impact tech and open source than I can capture in a few paragraphs. But I hope this overview provides a good starting point. For an analysis of the macro trends and geopolitics, please see Part III of this series: "Open Source in China: The Trends". If you missed Part I, go here.

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中国的开源世界:游戏规则

这篇文章是对“中国开源”这个话题的探索的第二部分。如果这是您第一次听说或思考中国的开源生态,我建议您先看看我之前的文章“中国的开源世界:玩家”,了解一下生态里主要的公司和组织。(或者直接跳到第三篇:“中国的开源世界:未来趋势”。)

这篇文章将重点讨论开源是如何融入到玩家们的整体市场,业务和竞争关系中,也就是所谓的“游戏规则”。我还准备另一篇文章,专注讨论与开源相关的新兴趋势,以及开源对地缘政治和国际关系的影响。

中国的开源生态很复杂,因此我在这把事情分成两方面:市场想要什么,政府想要什么,以便了解和分析动态。

市场想要什么

科技巨头

对于任何一家大型科技公司来说,建立一个有粘性的生态系统和平台是主导市场的必要条件。对中国的科技巨头来说这种战略思考也是类似的。我在上一篇文章中重点提到的有开源项目的巨头们——阿里、百度、字节跳动、滴滴出行、华为、美团点评、腾讯、小米——它们都有自己的核心领域,但也都在其他公司的核心领域中在竞争布局。要成为一个有粘性的平台,必须建立生态系统。从战略角度来讲,开源技术可以很有效的推动生态系统的形成。

腾讯的开源项目wepy(一个小程序组件化开发框架)就是一个很好的例子。微信要想成为移动操作系统中的主导平台,把自己变成新一层的操作系统,就需要开发者构建更多的小程序,让微信成为用户脱离不了的东西。吸引开发者最好的方法就是开源和维护像wepy这样的框架。这一战略考虑的理由与苹果开源Swfit类似。苹果作为一个公司并不以开源著称,还是开源了Swift来鼓励开发者创造更多app,使iOS成为一个更有价值,更有粘性的平台。

扫一下哪些GitHub项目被pin,就可以看出这些巨头们如何优先开源项目来支持它们的核心业务。如果没有任何pin(好几个公司都没有),就表明它们不太知道如何“玩开源”,如何利用开源的力量来构建他们需要的生态系统。

这里有一个很大的冲突:平台锁定。任何类型的锁定,无论是操作系统、供应商还是其他什么的,都直接与开源的核心价值主张和社区期望相冲突。开发者最终会用自己的行动投票决定一项技术是真正的开源,还是依赖于特定平台的“假开源”。继续以Swift为例,它的成功的关键之一是它可以同时在苹果自己的平台和Linux上使用,而Linux是一个被广泛使用的开源操作系统。腾讯的wepy和其他由巨头赞助的开源项目在真正开源程度上的表现还有待观察。

创业公司

对巨头们来讲,开源是为其核心业务服务的。而对于商业开源初创公司来说,开源是它们的DNA。开源不仅仅是许多战略计划中的一个,更是它们的本质。除此之外,这些初创公司还需要从他们所推动的开源项目中赚钱,不像在大厂里,开源和收入之间的联系并没有那么紧密。

因为大多数在中国起家的开源初创公司的成立时间都不到5年,说它们目前的开源是在搭建平台还为时过早。也因此,用户在评估初创公司支持的开源项目时,对平台锁定并不是很担忧。

开源已经证明了自己是能最有效地创造牢靠成熟的技术的软件开发方法。因此,总的来说,这些初创公司主要的短期目标还是在加速他们的开源技术的成熟度,也自然有助于商业化的发展。一些最活跃的项目,如TiDB(由PingCAP开发)和Apache Kylin(由Kyligence开发),每周甚至有每天都有修正和改进。这种活跃程度和迭代速度在大厂的开源项目中很少看到,大厂中很多项目每几个月才有更改。

获取和保留人才

开源是招募和保留技术人才的最佳方式,所有在某种程度上接受了开源的中国科技公司都在努力地利用开源招兵买马。一家开源初创公司通常会雇佣那些已经为其开源项目做出贡献的工程师。大厂也常这样做。每家公司的招聘人员都会盯着社区口碑好的开源项目,寻找可以挖走的工程师。一旦成功雇佣,有开源项目的公司就可以允许员工把为开源项目做贡献作为工作的一部分,以此来更好地保留人才。开发者通常都喜欢使用开源技术并为其做出贡献,这同时也会帮助他们打造自己的影响力,展示自己的技术能力,为将来更好的工作前景铺路。工程师们在此的想法和动力与艺术家或音乐家其实已并无不同了。

值得注意的是,通过开源获取人才不仅发生在国内,更发生在全球范围内。所有的开源项目都是公开的,全球化的,那为项目做贡献的人自然也是。开源项目是来自世界各地的开发者聚集的地方,因此开源可以说是世界上最强大的技术人才库。

政府想要什么

中国中央政府在国家技术发展中影响力很大。这应该不奇怪。然而,政府的愿景和计划如何转化为现实其实很复杂,有很多细微差别。从外界看,中国政府机构是一个单一的整体。其实不是的。

对科技最有关的中央政府部门是工业和信息化部(MIIT)。MIIT已经接受了开源。在工信部的网站上搜索一下 “开源” 就会有看到在云计算、大数据、人工智能等领域支持开源的新闻发布。这些新闻稿读起来可能过于简洁,没什么意思,但它们的重要性在于,它们的存在是中央政府对于开源认可的信号。

为什么中央政府会支持开源其实不难理解:它更喜欢不依赖于某些供应商、公司或国家的灵活的技术,它还可以有效地控制和塑造这些技术。这里的想法与国内外任何大型企业使用开源的基本理由没有太大区别。“自力更生” 作为一个主题和技术需求,将是中国未来多年的目标。这种转变方向已经有一段时间了,但由于中美贸易战和对华为的制裁而加速。这种加速推动了战略性产业,如银行业、保险业、电信业,更快地采用国产技术或开源技术,但最好是国产开源技术。所有这些变化都导致了我之前提到的巨头和开源初创公司的科技被更多地使用。

一个通常被忽视的重要政府角色是省政府。虽然中央政府的各种计划:一带一路,2025年中国制造,2035年中国标准等,通常占据了头条,但这些计划如何在国内实施落地取决于省级政府的能力和业绩。省级政府也互相争夺这些计划里给的资源。在落实细节方面,他们有相当大的自由度。落实好的省份将变得富裕,干的好的官员将升官发财。

在科技领域里,迄今为止最为突出的两个省份是浙江(阿里和网易的总部所在地)和广州(华为和腾讯的总部所在地)。北京和(较小程度上)上海是另外两个科技中心,但它们是直辖市。考虑到开源对整个中国技术未来的重要性,任何来自高层的计划或倡议都可能先渗透到这几个地方的公司。

当然,中国政府的各个层面和部门对科技和开源技术的影响还有很多细微的差异值得分析,我暂时无法在这里完全捕捉到。但是,我希望这个概述能给大家提供一个好的起点。如果想继续深入探索,请看本系列的第三篇“中国的开源世界:未来趋势”,分析宏观趋势和国际地缘政治会如何影响中国的开源。如果您没看到本系列的第一篇,请点击这里

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