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Market share, monopolies, and power in open source communities

“I think there’s potential to get to a similar market share as Android, which I believe now has 85% of all handsets,” Matt Mullenweg (Automattic) told TechCrunch. “When you think about it, open source has a virtuous cycle of adoption, people building on the platform and more adoption.” – statement Mullenweg made in an interview after Salesforce Ventures invested $300 million in Automattic last month.

David Heinemeier Hansson (Ruby on Rails creator and Basecamp co-founder) “‘We want every website, whether it’s e-commerce or anything to be powered by WordPress’ is a nasty, monopolistic goal,” he said. “Listening to Matt muse about 85% marketshare dreams is a real downer.”

Hansson contends that he would like to see a very large, rich ecosystem of providers of tools and services on the web and expressed concern about WordPress growing many times faster than any of its competitors.

Mullenweg countered that unique domains are not the only measure of a monopoly. He also referenced Shopify as having a thriving business with a small percentage of the e-commerce platform market share.

“Even though open source can become a bit of a standard, it doesn’t prevent others from starting on it,” Mullenweg said.

“Why would venture capitalists invest half a billion dollars into WordPress if they didn’t see Automattic as a company as having a lot of power over WordPress? The whole reason someone is able to raise that kind of money is off the back of someone who can pitch: ‘We have over a third of all websites on the internet and we think we can get to 85%.’ That’s a very compelling venture story,” Hansson said.

One of Hansson’s chief concerns with WordPress reaching 85% market share is what he described as the “death of diversity.” He perceives this pursuit of increased adoption as growing open source in monopolistic ways.

“We’re living through an era right now where a small handful of big tech companies are exerting a completely undue amount of power over the internet, over discourse, over all sorts of things, and that’s something we should try to recoil from and at least learn from, not aspire to building more of,” Hansson said. “That’s what got this going – why isn’t WordPress in a great place only being a third of all the sites of the internet. Why does it need to get to 85%? Why does its growth need to be that explosive and that wild?”

This is a question many in the WordPress community have asked in the past. Does the mission of democratizing publishing necessitate such a zealous drive towards market dominance?

“I don’t want to see this concentration of power in one engine, no matter how good it is,” Hansson said.

It is at this juncture that Mullenweg revealed more of his vision for WordPress becoming the “operating system of the web,” an idea he has floated several times over the past few years.

“Matt appears to think of WordPress as infrastructure for the web, in the same way that Google and Facebook think of themselves as infrastructure for the web,”  the famous web designer and developer Morten Rand-Hendriksen said.

“If we truly believe in this idea of open source as diversification and forking, WP should actively support other projects and try to not be the dominant force on the web. WP is not infrastructure, it is very much a grain that has become a monoculture.”

Automattic invariably comes under more public scrutiny regarding its investments due to having the WordPress project lead as its CEO. One interesting observation Mullenweg made during podcast is that Automattic is just one of many larger players that make up the the WordPress economy, which he has previously estimated at $10 billion/year.

While Mullenweg’s claim that “WordPress belongs to you as much as it belongs to anyone else” is true in the sense that the software is freely available to be used and modified by anyone, the full power of leveraging the WordPress brand does not belong to everyone.