Reflecting on how far open source has come

· by Steve · Read in about 6 min · (1243 Words)

It seems that more and more these days I find articles cropping up in publications like the Economist or WSJ about open source projects, and it occurred to me how ‘normal’ it had now become for such business-oriented publications to recognise what a driver open source has become in the modern world. It’s expected now, but it made me think back to my personal journey with open source, and how much resistance I’ve encountered to it over the years.

I’ve been a fan of open source from before I even knew what it was. Ever since I got my first modem and hooked my computer up to the world in the early 90’s, firstly to access BBS’s & FidoNet and soon after the ‘Internet’ (telnet, ftp and gopher FTW), the main thing I did with it was consume and publish source code. I remember thinking that if only I’d had access to these sorts of systems earlier in life, I would have been a better programmer much quicker, rather than having to hunt out obscure paper references all the time. These youngsters don’t know how good they’ve got it! 😀

Initially, my main ports of call were coding-oriented university FTP sites like oulu.fi and sunet.se, where members of the ever-active European demo scene used to hang out and share code and technical information. As I learned, I began to publish my own code back onto these same sites - at the time under a public domain license. The main reason I did this was that I felt a responsibility to do so - after all, I’d learned from downloading other people’s work, so it made perfect sense that once I produced something, I should contribute it back to the community too, renewing the cycle. These principles are of course at the heart of open source development, even though at the time I didn’t know there was a developing concept and set of formal licenses that neatly wrapped up what I considered to be ‘right’.

I really became aware of open source near the end of the decade, but really only started to understand it when I started my own first open source project (which has lasted much longer than I could have imagined at the time). As I saw it develop, I began to sincerely believe that this model represented the future of modern software development; not necessarily in isolation, since real innovation on the upper end of the ideas curve would still be commercially viable, but as a really major part of the underpinnings of software landscape - the ‘underwater’ part of the iceberg so to speak. It just made so much sense on so many levels:

Developers (good ones anyway!) Software Companies (except incumbents) Software Consumers (savvy ones)
- Like to share knowledge & learn
- Like proven solutions they can reuse
- Like refining / refactoring / improving
- Understand collaboration is key to sw dev
- Don't like to burn research money on old problems
- Like anything that helps them compete
- Like to retain dev staff through motivation
- Don't like being beholden to larger companies
- Like value
- Like their software to be widely used & supported
- Don't like being forced to upgrade when they don't need to
- Like to feel in control of their own destiny

Open source ticks all of these boxes - what’s not to like? And yet, over the years I’ve encountered a lot of resistance to the idea of using open source, and I’m sure lots of other people with a less conservative mindset suffered the same frustrations with those wedded to the traditional. I lost track of the number of times I was told by bosses that Linux would never be viable as a server OS for ‘serious’ business (the NYSE might disagree with that, among many others), and that non-proprietary software would never underpin anything other than hackish, thrown-together systems some university student might play with. No, for ‘real’ systems you had to expect to pay a proprietary vendor for every element of it, otherwise it wasn’t serious. No amount of arguing about how much money was wasted re-inventing technology that was well understood, just because a proprietary vendor wanted to control it (the tech you’ll find in databases, operating systems and email systems is mostly decades old, yet some people still happily pay for it even if they’re simple mid-range users) seemed to make a dent in the conviction of these people that open source was a silly distraction.

Luckily, they were wrong. In the end, what typically happened is that open source sneaked in under the radar - when budgets were constrained, developers and other savvy techs would start using open source to deliver what they needed without having to request more funding. Unbeknownst to customers, software & hardware that they purchased ended up having significant open source components present, introducing some to it surreptitiously - and often they discovered that the standardised nature of it meant they could do more with it than they might have realised. Slowly, inexorably, the grass roots realised (at varying speeds) that open source had something genuine to offer them, that their proprietary vendors were not delivering. Most proprietary vendors went through the standard ‘transition curve’ on open source (and some haven’t come out the other end yet):

  1. Denial - refute that open source can be useful for anything, that it’s too risky
  2. Anger - threaten legal action, wave patents, accuse of anti-commercialism or socialism
  3. Bargaining - a softer version of the above, try to convince people your approach is better
  4. Depression - realise everyone’s ignoring you and doing it anyway, dither over how exactly to deal with that
  5. Acceptance - realise that open source and proprietary models can co-exist, and everyone can benefit. The extent to which you can control and exploit your customers is forever reduced, but you’ll get over it.

I’ll leave you to make your own judgements on where a selection of vendors are on this curve right now 😉 Most customers have been, or are going through the same experience - and typically the stage they’re at reflects how tightly they were bound to particular proprietary vendors, and how conservative or innovative they are. But these days, I don’t think there’s any organisation that can say they’re not using any open source, or that they expect to use less of it in the future. Even Gartner, the research company that has traditionally been ridiculously slow to pick up on these things, to the extent that their analyses on the subject were becoming remarkably detached from reality (I think they only talked to Microsoft and Oracle partners), has finally admitted the trend.

So, in summary, I can look back at the last 10 years since I became aware of open source, and I can feel very happy about how things have turned out. A great idea has flourished in spite of the scorn poured on it by those with vested interests, simply because of all of us. We could see that it worked, and carried on regardless of how many so-called industry experts told us it wouldn’t. It’s essentially like democracy - sure you can have a ‘ruling party’ that tries to tell you the way things should be, but if enough people think for themselves and go their own way, change is as inexorable as the tide. And change is a wonderful thing.