What comes after the open source revolution?
Open source software has driven innovation and progress even in the face of an economic meltdown. Where do we go from here?
The concept of openness has existed since the dawn of humankind. Long before the rise of open source software, many people had an innate desire to share what they learned, in the hope that their knowledge would help others.
Open source software was born from a similar desire. In the 1980s, early pioneers in the practice eschewed traditional development models and established definitions and practical norms for open source software that are still followed today. The widespread availability of Internet connectivity starting in the 90s made large-scale collaboration more economically feasible and dropped the marginal cost of producing software to near zero. A new wave of developers emerged to create and contribute to open projects, driven not by monetary rewards, but by a desire to share their body of knowledge to solve problems and learn from their peers.
However, it took a major economic disruption to force major software consumers to consider using open source alternatives to the expensive, proprietary solutions on which their businesses were built. In the early 21st century, as the global economy began to shrink, it was clear that all aspects of modern civilization needed to become more efficient in the face of dwindling resources. Companies and governments were forced to downsize, while technology continued to advance, providing new collaborative ways to create and distribute value. In this environment, open source software was in a prime position to be the driving force behind these advancements, providing low-cost innovation in systems dominated by a few proprietary and expensive suppliers. Red Hat and Google are two of the most prominent success stories of open source, but many others have decided to build their solutions on the backs of open source.
Today, open source principles and business practices are taught in academia right alongside sound software engineering practices (and in some cases prior to the university level, e.g., through Google Code-In). This results in today’s graduating developers leaving dusty university basements with a sound understanding of the two-way benefits of open source, and graduating with the same passion for learning and contributing that their predecessors had.
In turn, open source has become a de facto standard in many areas of computing. Proprietary solutions are now considered an aberration and an RFP eyebrow-raiser, thanks to open source’s proven security, ease of maintenance, and lower entry cost. What used to take months or years of procurement battles to get an IT department up and running now takes a few clicks and forum posts to create a workable solution. Armed with this body of knowledge and experience, open source developers are increasingly being consulted in purchasing decisions and often prefer to use what they know—open source.
Recently, there have been large investments in open source as a practice unto itself, including best practices and tools practitioners need to create and use open source. Think Github, LaunchPad, or Google Code. Think Bacon’s Art of Community. Crowd funding sites like Kickstarter and Pledgie can be used to fund the creation and development of open source projects, making it even easier to economically support open source.
Innovations through open source have helped shape the landscape of computing over the last two decades, and are positioned to gain even more significance as the general size of the computing universe continues to grow at an exponential rate. Projects like Hadoop, Cassandra, and MongoDB have been developed collaboratively under the open source banner, providing matching solutions to the growing problem of big data analysis.
New languages and frameworks appear almost daily, giving developers a rich tapestry of projects and methodologies on which to develop new software. Traditionally proprietary vendors have also begun to embrace and invest in open source, such as Microsoft’s VM Depot.
Open Source has a bright future. In the process of crossing over into mainstream use, companies (and their legal departments) developed a much better understanding of it, including the intellectual property issues associated with open source licensing, proven successful open source business models, and the best ways to interact with and provide mutual benefit to open source communities. Open source is firmly planted in the roots of much of today’s computing, and its principles will undoubtedly drive software development for the foreseeable future.
James Falkner is the Community Manager at Liferay, a provider of enterprise-class open source portals.