Golang, also called Go, is a statically typed, compiled programming language designed by Google. Golang is going from strength to strength, as more engineers than ever are using it at work, according to Go User Survey 2019. An opinion that has led to the Hacker News community into a heated debate last week: “Go is Google’s language, not the community’s”. The thread was first started by Chris Siebenmann who works at the Department of Computer Science, University of Toronto. His blog post reads, “Go has community contributions but it is not a community project. It is Google’s project.”
Chris explicitly states that the community’s voice doesn’t matter very much for Go’s development, and we have to live with that. He argues that Google is the gatekeeper for community contributions; it alone decides what is and isn’t accepted into Go. If a developer wants some significant feature to be accepted into Golang, working to build consensus in the community is far less important than persuading the Golang core team. He then cites the example of how one member of Google’s Go core team discarded the entire Go Modules system that the Go community had been working on and brought in a relatively radically different model.
Chris believes that the Golang team cares about the community and want them to be involved, but only up to a certain point. He wants the Go core team to be bluntly honest about the situation, rather than pretend and implicitly lead people on. He further adds, “Only if Go core team members start leaving Google and try to remain active in determining Go’s direction, can we [be] certain Golang is a community-driven language.”
He then compares Go with C++, calling the latter a genuine community-driven language. He says there are several major implementations in C++ which are genuine community projects, and the direction of C++ is set by an open standards committee with a relatively distributed membership.
What is better – community-driven or corporate ownership?
There has been an opinion floating around developers about how some open source programming projects are just commercial projects driven mainly by a single company. If we look at the top open source projects, most of them have some kind of corporate backing ( Apple’s Swift, Oracle’s Java, MySQL, Microsoft’s Typescript, Google’s Kotlin, Golang, Android, MongoDB, Elasticsearch) to name a few. Which brings us to the question, what does corporate ownership of open source projects really mean? A benevolent dictatorship can have two outcomes. If the community for a particular project suggests a change, and in case a change is a bad idea, the corporate team can intervene and stop changes. On the other hand, though, it can actually stop good ideas from the community in being implemented, even if a handful of members from the core team disagree.
Chris’s post has received a lot of attention by developers on Hacker News who both sided with and disagreed with the opinion put forward. A comment reads, “It’s important to have a community and to work with it, but, especially for a programming language, there has to be a clear concept of which features should be implemented and which not – just accepting community contributions for the sake of making the community feel good would be the wrong way.”
Another comment reads, “Many like Go because it is an opinionated language. I’m not sure that a ‘community’ run language will create something like that because there are too many opinions. Many claims to represent the community, but not the community that doesn’t share their opinion. Without clear leaders, I fear technical direction and taste will be about politics which seems more uncertain/risky.
I like that there is a tight cohesive group in control over Go and that they are largely the original designers. I might be more interested in alternative government structures and Google having too much control only if those original authors all stepped down.”
Rather than splitting between Community or Corporate, a more accurate representation would be how much market value is depending on those projects. If a project is thriving, usually enterprises will take good decisions to handle it. However, another but entirely valid and important question to ask is ‘should open source projects be driven by their market value?’
Another common argument is that the core team’s full-time job is to take care of the language instead of taking errant decisions based on community backlash. Google (or Microsoft, or Apple, or Facebook for that matter) will not make or block a change in a way that kills an entire project. But this does not mean they should sit idly, ignoring the community response. Ideally, the more that a project genuinely belongs to its community, the more it will reflect what the community wants and needs.
Google also has a propensity to kill its own products. What happens when Google is not as interested in Golang anymore? The company could leave it to the community to figure out the governance model suddenly by pulling off the original authors into some other exciting new project. Or they may let the authors only work on Golang in their spare time at home or at the weekends. While Google’s history shows that many of their dead products are actually an important step towards something better and more successful, why and how much of that logic would be directly relevant to an open source project is something worth thinking about.
As a Hacker news user wrote, “Go is developed by Bell Labs people, the same people who bought us C, Unix and Plan 9 (Ken, Pike, RSC, et al). They took the time to think through all their decisions, the impacts of said decisions, along with keeping things as simple as possible. Basically, doing things right the first time and not bolting on features simply because the community wants them.” Another says, “The way how Golang team handles potentially tectonic changes in language is also exemplary – very well communicated ideas, means to provide feedback and clear explanation of how the process works.”
Rest assured, if any major change is made to Go, even a drastic one such as killing it, it will not be done without consulting the community and taking their feedback.