The Past, Present, and Future of Open Source Technology
One thing lies at the center of all great innovations – collaboration. Technological advancements, big and small, were made possible due to the collective ideas and feedback of great minds working together. Open Source Technology was built upon this idea, and it has now become one of the most favored sets of tools and technologies used by developers. In this article, we take a look at the roots of open source, how it’s used today, and what the future may hold for this technology.
Free as in Freedom
To truly understand the significance of Open Source Technology, we must start at the beginning. The concept of open source is nothing new. Prior to the late 1970s, software was traditionally given away with hardware in the form of source code. It was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that companies began to see the value in software, and so began an era of NDAs and proprietary software licenses.
Frustrated by the secrecy and lack of collaboration, a MIT programmer by the name of Richard M. Stallman created the GNU project, which aimed to create a clone of the Unix operating system, only this one would offer its users complete freedom to share and collaborate. In 1985, he published the GNU Manifesto, calling programmers to join his cause. The free software movement was born.
However, from the start, there was obfuscation around the word “free.” Stallman was known to remind users that the concept of free software was referring to freedom, as in rights, not gifts. It wasn’t until 1998 that the term “open source” was coined by Christine Peterson, citing the fundamental difference between free and proprietary software not being in the price, but in the open source code. The software itself might not be free, but if the software’s source code is open source, anyone is free to inspect, modify, and enhance that code.
Many Minds at Work
Today, a great network of open source developers working around the world contribute to an ever growing and ever improving set of technologies. Because of the power behind this collective intellect, open source tends to be an excellent strategy for startups. With so many minds at work on a single problem at any given time, those problems and, in turn, solutions are found much more quickly than they would be by one or two programmers that a startup company might employ in its infancy. This “hivemind” can prove especially beneficial for data-heavy projects that by nature require a vast effort to get off the ground.
Open source is not only a strategy employed by startups to fast-track their development. In 2018, IBM acquired Red Hat for $34 Billion, pushing open source acquisitions and mergers for that year to nearly $55 Billion.
Why spend so much money on technologies that do not profit from user licenses? By and large, developers like open source. Due to the vast number of contributors, the technology tends to be cutting-edge, collaborative, and transparent. It pushes developers to produce better code, and it does not require waiting on purchasing agreements and bureaucracy. There is a mindset around open source that goes to the root of the movement: the principles of freedom and information sharing for the betterment of all.
For software development companies, developers who write that software are a valuable resource, and a way to win them over beyond increasingly high salaries is in providing them with the tools they want to use. For many developers, those tools of choice have open source code.
Open Source Under Threat?
Unsurprisingly, with so much manpower behind it, the open source engine also results in faster advancement of technologies. While technological advancement for the betterment of all is a wonderful sentiment, most software development companies do eventually need to turn a profit. So how can those companies balance the free labor benefit of open source with making money through intellectual property?
There comes a time in most software companies’ growth where some amount of the code must be protected as proprietary. Not all software companies will become giants like Facebook who can continue to invest in their open source programs while keeping their root business’s IP behind a privacy shield. For most, a careful balance must be struck between open source code and proprietary.
If companies only employ open source as a growth strategy until they have enough code or credibility to move everything to a propriety model, the entire concept of open source will be corroded. In a 2019 interview, Dev Ittycheria, the founder and CEO of MongoDB, stated that MongoDB only used open source as a “freemium strategy” and downplayed the significance of the community’s contributions. If more companies continue to deny the impact open source has had on their overall success, disheartened developers will stop contributing. After all, the significance of open source is directly reliant on the number of people who continue to use it.
There is not always an easy solution for organizations who need to move from an open source model to a proprietary one in order to make money. Common strategies include keeping the bulk of source code open while moving a small portion to proprietary, charging for support and/or hosting, and offering users different software package options, one free, the other with a license. There is no one-size-fits-all.
As long as software organizations continue to grow with open source code, and developers continue to contribute, the open source community will continue to thrive. In turn, technology will continue to accelerate and advance at exponential rates – hopefully – for the betterment of all.