Open Source Is Dead - And This May Be a Good Thing(tm)


I got my first computer in 1978. It was a TRS-80 (later called the Model 1, but we just called it a TRS-80). It had 4K of RAM and a 1.7MHz processor.

This was pre-Internet and even pre-BBS (bulletin board system for you youngsters). Most information was disseminated via paper magazines like /Baud/ and /Creative Computing/.

I spent hours typing in programs, and it is a large part of how I both taught myself to type as well as debug code (one is bound to make mistakes). While this was before people thought about free and open software, most of the code was in an interpreted language like BASIC and by default you could see it and play with it. For example, I liked text adventure games, and once I saw how one was written it was pretty easy to write my own. People were able to build reputations by writing articles and sharing code, although it happened much, much slower than today.

Then, like the apple in the garden of Eden, came the famous letter from Bill Gates who pointed out that software shouldn't be free. People stopped sharing their code and started selling it. Fortunes were made, but all was not wonderful. No longer was code easy to customize. Gone was the camaraderie that came with sharing. People started changing the way they worked to fit the software instead of the other way around.

In response to this came a man named Richard Stallman. He understood what had been lost and tried to reclaim it by founding the Free Software Foundation in 1985. Part of his philosophy of the "Four Freedoms" included a call to "help your neighbor" and that spirit was at the heart of the "free software movement". During the next few years work would be done on a group of free software libraries and compilers under the GNU banner.

While a lot of the code required for an operating system was developed under GNU, the projects for the low level software, specifically the kernel, were stalled. In 1991 Linus Torvalds decided to leverage the GNU software to create the Linux kernel, and the rest is, as we say, history.

Linux was empowering. Finally the free software movement had all the parts it needed. Well, except for a business model. Time is money, and highly skilled developers are worth a lot of money. While a lot of people liked the community aspect of free software, the "free" aspect was troubling. In 1998, in response to the decision of Netscape to release the code for their Navigator browser, the term "open source" was introduced. Codified by the Open Source Initiative's Open Source Definition, the term removed some of the perceived anti-business stigma of "free", even though it is easy to map Stallman's Four Freedoms to the ten requirements of the Open Source Definition.

Plus, along came the rise of the Internet. Netscape's public offering signaled the beginning of the first Internet bubble. The focus was shifting from software running on a desktop to software running on a server or even software running as a service and accessible via a browser. Scale became important, and with the cost of having to buy a proprietary operating system hindering the deployment of new systems, people started looking for alternative.

Enter Red Hat. Founded in 1993, Red Hat provided a commercially supported Linux-based operating system. As the Internet bubble inflated, demand for Red Hat products also rose and their 1999 IPO resulted in a huge first day gain. Open source was here to stay.

But then something happened. In 2000 the Internet bubble was starting to implode, with the events of 11 September 2001 putting the final nail in that coffin. While open source was still important, things like the Linux Desktop never materialized. But where it started to shine was in things like programming languages. C++ via the gcc compiler became a standard, while computer languages like Python and PHP gained traction. People began to understand that they could save a lot of time by leveraging open source code, and permissive licenses made it possible to create proprietary products using it. While Red Hat continued to be successful, a lot of companies that tried their model found that it was not possible to duplicate it. Companies like Xen, that created software for computer virtualization, found out that people were more than happy to use their products without paying a cent. Open source was still in search of a business model.

The growing popularity of the Internet greatly changed the game as software became something one used remotely instead of owning a copy. Open source is governed by copyright law, and if you don't distribute a copy at all, a lot of the rules change. Companies like Google, who provide almost all of their products through a browser, were able to use open source without their applications becoming "free". While there are certainly companies out there that leverage open source without giving anything back, the largest users discovered it was in their own best interests to support the communities that create the software they use. The Google Summer of Code program is one such way they give back.

So open source had finally found a business model: use open source to create closed applications and services. Instead of being about free software applications, open source has become more about creating free tools. At a recent conference the biggest sponsors were companies one would not called "open source". There was Bluehost, a hosting provider “built on open source technologies”. There was Paypal, “using open source foundations in their technology stacks”. The list continues: Citrix, Google, HP, Microsoft and Rackspace.

One would think that this would be the death knell for free and open software. I'm not sure this is the case. What is happening is that the current generation of programmers is being fed a steady diet of open source. Good open source programmers can make serious money and have a lot of fun doing it. Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are in high demand for open source talent.

And when one gets a true taste of the power of open source, you just want to make more of it. Take, for example, Ubuntu. Founded by Canonical in 2004, Ubuntu is the most popular Linux Desktop environment (although to be honest it's market share is a rounding error compare to Windows and to a lesser extent, OS X). But now that is has been around for ten years a subset of geeks is very comfortable with it, and now the Ubuntu Server is starting to gain on Red Hat Enterprise Linux for market share.

The trend is even more pronounced in the mobile device market. Apple changed the playing field with the introduction of the iPhone, but Google responded with the open source Android operating system. While the iPhone is still extremely popular, Android powered devices are now the dominant platform. Now granted, there is a lot of fractionation among Android-based offerings, but that's the beauty of open source. Once Apple got users up the learning curve, Android open source set them free.

Now it is fair to say that many vendors are trying for the huge profits that Apple can demand for its products by making their products more locked down. Samsung removed the ability to load third party software on its devices back in late 2013, and even Google tends to play things close to the chest when releasing new products. But that doesn't keep the open source community from that that code and forking it. The once hackerish Cyanogenmod team, build on the Android Open Source Project, has secured funding and is producing some cool products such as the software for the Oneplus One handset. Don't like how Cyanogenmod is changing? Run OmniROM, which is a fork of their product.

In conclusion, while the open source world today is probably not what we dreamed about ten years ago, open source is here to stay. The tenants of open source: the ability to empower users and create the best products available as a community are becoming entrenched and this is resulting is an acceleration of truly free and open software. I'm able to run almost all of my personal and business computing needs using open source software, and while it isn't exactly easy it is becoming easier. We need to embrace the new business models around open source and encourage more people to focus on it, for in the end it will benefit us all, including our neighbors.

Los Angeles C
Saturday, February 21, 2015 - 11:30 to 12:30