Open source won

What does winning look like? No enemy has been vanquished, but open source is now mainstream and a new norm.

I heard the comments a few times at the 14th OSCON: The conference has lost its edge. The comments resonated with my own experience — a shift in demeanor, a more purposeful, optimistic attitude, less itching for a fight. Yes, the conference has lost its edge, it doesn’t need one anymore.

Open source won. It’s not that an enemy has been vanquished or that proprietary software is dead, there’s not much regarding adopting open source to argue about anymore. After more than a decade of the low-cost, lean startup culture successfully developing on open source tools, it’s clearly a legitimate, mainstream option for technology tools and innovation.

And open source is not just for hackers and startups. A new class of innovative, widely adopted technologies has emerged from the open source culture of collaboration and sharing — turning the old model of replicating proprietary software as open source projects on its head. Think Git, D3, Storm, Node.js, Rails, Mongo, Mesos or Spark.

We see more enterprise and government folks intermingling with the stalwart open source crowd who have been attending OSCON for years. And, these large organizations are actively adopting many of the open source technologies we track, e.g., web development frameworks, programming languages, content management, data management and analysis tools.

We hear fewer concerns about support or needing geek-level technical competency to get started with open source. In the Small and Medium Business (SMB) market we see mass adoption of open source for content management and ecommerce applications — even for self-identified technology newbies.

MySQL appears as popular as ever and remains open source after three years of Oracle control and Microsoft is pushing open source JavaScript as a key part of its web development environment and more explicit support for other open source languages. Oracle and Microsoft are not likely to radically change their business models, but their recent efforts show that open source can work in many business contexts.

Even more telling:

  • With so much of the consumer web undergirded with open source infrastructure, open source permeates most interactions on the web.
  • The massive, $100 million, GitHub investment validates the open collaboration model and culture — forking becomes normal.

What does winning look like? Open source is mainstream and a new norm — for startups, small business, the enterprise and government. Innovative open source technologies creating new business sectors and ecosystems (e.g., the distribution options, tools and services companies building around Hadoop). And what’s most exciting is the notion that the collaborative, sharing culture that permeates the open source community spreads to the enterprise and government with the same impact on innovation and productivity.

So, thanks to all of you who made the open source community a sustainable movement, the ones who were there when … and all the new folks embracing the culture. I can’t wait to see the new technologies, business sectors and opportunities you create.


tags: , , , , , ,

Get the O’Reilly Programming Newsletter

Weekly insight from industry insiders. Plus exclusive content and offers.

  • Open Source is definitely part of the mainstream now- I work with a number of clients building and using Open Source solutions, and indeed one of my main clients is an eCommerce product for small businesses called Jigoshop which is developed via GitHub, and built around WordPress…

  • Roger,

    You couldn’t be more wrong.

    Open Source is losing, and losing fast, as computing systems move to the mobile + cloud paradigm.

    Users are moving more and more to proprietary software provided as a service. Many of these services use Open Source infrastructure tools — database, Web servers, programming languages — but the software that runs the service is not actually open source.

    Google, Facebook, Twitter: they all run open source software under the covers, but the layer that people actually use is proprietary.

    Github is an excellent example — proprietary software wrapping a lot of Open Source components.

    Triumphalism is a grave danger to open source — we’re sitting back on our laurels while proprietary software eats our lunch.

    • Evan – the fact that people build proprietary cloud services on top of open source is not news. I highlighted that fact a decade ago in my talks on “The Open Source Paradigm Shift.” It’s not only not news, it’s the way things work. Open platforms always create new value that is captured by people who close the system down in some ways. But we’re all better off from the dance.

      Roger’s post is not open source “triumphalism” but a statement about how open source and proprietary, revolutionary and enterprise, have learned to coexist.

      There is plenty of room still for new open source innovation. The notion that if everything isn’t open source, we’ve somehow failed is a bankrupt notion.

      My own thinking about open source has always been shaped more by the generosity of the Berkeley/MIT/Apache/Internet approach – here’s our work, build on it however you will – than on the hyper-controlling approach of the GPL. There’s no question in my mind which of those approaches has created more value for society. The pragmatists beat the ideologues hands down.

      • Hey, Tim!

        I agree that there’s a continuous and consistent cycle with Open Source, in which a layer of the stack is commodified, then a proprietary layer is built on top of that stack, which in its turn is commodified by the next wave of Open Source projects.

        We’ve seen it with server operating systems, embedded operating systems, RDBMSes, programming languages and tools, CMSes, and other markets.

        But there have been some areas that have been more resistant — desktop operating systems, PC and console games, office productivity, and most consumer Web services (blogging software being a notable exception). And as these areas, especially Web services, become a bigger part of our lives every day, this resistance becomes more and more noticeable.

        One way to measure Open Source’s success is whether it exists in any market; another is to gauge whether it dominates in some markets. Both these metrics seem strong.

        But I’d measure the Open Source paradigm’s success by our ability to penetrate and disrupt _any_ market, and I think in this measure we’re losing, not winning. We seem to be falling back on our core Open Source strengths — infrastructure and programming tools — instead of the healthy climb up the stack.

      • Roger


        Not much to add to Tim’s reply. I can say that I based my comments on the change in demeanor I and others detected at the conference, and attributing that to open source becoming so normal that it’s just another option in how technology gets developed, losing much of its baggage and increasingly embraced by large organizations. Tim has well captured how I see open source fitting in the wider world – sometimes dominant, sometimes providing infrastructure, increasingly a source of innovation.

        • I guess it’s a different idea of “mainstream”. I think of consumer and end-user technology.

        • Don’t get me wrong — I’m happy to see other Open Source players concede the space around Web applications. More fun for me!

    • Xiaojun Ma

      It sounds like you talking about Free Software rather than Open Source.

      Quotes from OSI: “Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.”
      Hum, not directly related to end users.

      Free Software can be that of FSF or that of DFSG. I prefer DFSG’s definition actually since it it more from a user’s point of view.

      Yeah, if we run software that have source code available, virtually we won’t see annoying ADs and we won’t be secretly tracked. Since it’s all open, anyone can point out such flaws and make a fork to clean them. That’s the point of Free Software from end users point of view, I guess.

      The general public already accepted the concept that the free-of-charge apps maybe striped, AD injected, even with other bad flaws. That’s OK. But few people realize that they can also have another type of bargain, using Free Software, which may not offer best features compare to paid apps but have guaranteed unlimited usage, AD-free and privacy protection.

      Mobile platforms are much more restricted than a normal PC. In PC we can run GNU/Linux, easy for some people, harsh for others (applications some specific area is still lacking, some troublesome hardwares). We got the software freedom. I have no good suggestion for adding software freedom to mobile platform, but I’m using Nokia N9, a potentially libre model.

      Cloud platform is tricky. Since it’s the service provider need some resource to run their cloud apps. It is much harder for Free Software projects to sustain and keep their service running smoothly. (everyone is get used free online E-mail, storage, Office… Traditionally free software projects have little running cost since the development infrastructure can be public service like SourceForge, Google Code, Github, …

      Above all, software project, no matter open source or not need money to sustain. If I sell hardware features whole Free Software or provide charged cloud service using whole Free Software. I would use GPL as much as possible. Apache/BSD/MIT/… is nice in some point but they give origin author little protection I guess. And programs and libraries using Apache/BSD/MIT/… is a nice candy for all developers but contribute little to the whole society’s software freedom.

    • I think the value of open source isn’t whether it conceivably won or lost, but that an entire generation of developers now has large swaths of open source in their toolbelt when they want to solve real (proprietary) problems, and that individuals are being tasked with maintaining and contributing to open source as part of their full time jobs.

      You can create proprietary value whilst using and contributing back to open source.

      • So, I think that’s the crux of the matter: is the value of Open Source solely for developers, or is there some value for end users, too?

  • Digitalus

    So now it’s time to take this strugle one step further and go from open source to free software. Digital freedom is increasingly under attack from closed and anti-freedom corporations like Microsoft and Apple and its time to defend what is left and increase our rights and freedoms. Or else somebody else will have control over our digital devices and they will sure not work in our interest.

    • If you mean “free” by the RMS definition, I say no thank you. Freedom is not having someone else tell you what you must do.

      If someone takes code I have written and modifies it to have an advantage in the market, but doesn’t want to release the code and lose the advantage, I’m ok with that. I care more about tools being available than what someone might do with the tools after I have given it to them.

      I put my OSM contributions into public domain. I know people say “ooh, google might use it in their maps” I say, please do. I would rather have more accurate maps than have that information in a closed “free” system.

  • Poor PostgreSQL, still nobody loves you. :(

  • Open Source my have won, but professional programmers lost. With an expectation that almost everything but the last minute ‘glue’ code should be given away for free it’s becoming significantly harder to find actual paying jobs that aren’t excruciatingly mind-numbing. Sure there are a few well paid Open Source coders and some good positions in the mega-companies but for most of the rest, it is less wages to deal with larger volumes of buggier code and no real avenue left to get problems properly fixed. We’ve lowered the value of coding so far that Instead of getting opportunities to build better systems we’re left cobbling together bigger messes in worse time constraints. If we value our own efforts so poorly, then it is no surprise that others do too. I’m not planning on celebrating anytime soon …


    • lightweight

      How’d we lose? I’ve been a professional programmer (and running a FOSS development shop) for 14 years… from my point of view, we’ve now seen an “adjustment” as the market learns how to deal with software, and its value and software developer skills have started to stablise.

      • A couple of decades back, when I was in school, I worked with this older coder who had set up his own 1-man shop. He wrote nice, but not particularly exotic stuff which was distributed and supported by a third party. It provided a good living and allowed for him to get involved in many interests outside of paying the rent. It allowed him to experiment, without the constant pressure to hustle.

        That “luxury” probably still exists in some corners of our industry, but it is fading. We are more often forced to write what we have to, then to write what we want to. It might be fine when you are young to give it away for free, but unless you are born wealthy, you eventually acquire dependencies that need revenue. And so the freedom to experiment, to improve, to try things gives way to the hustle to pay the bills. And the experiments that we really need to achieve new growth are those that depend on significant knowledge and experience, otherwise they tend to be pale re-writes of low hanging fruit.

        We’ve lost because we’ve been reduced to code monkeys or we just bail to other professions once we’ve figured out the game.


  • Pingback: Open Source Won « adafruit industries blog()

  • This is a super summary, HOWEVER, what I see as I watch all the opens is disarray and the same old industrial era archipelagos. OSI could have, but did not, embrace Open Hardware, so now Open Hardware has its own association. Similarly Open Standards is scattered across the lot depending on the thing…

    We need to move beyond opens in isolation and go “all in” on Open Source Everything. To help make this point I publish a daily Open Source Everything Highlights, short URL is Twitter hash is #openall. I’ve also done a book, least expensive at Amazon, THE OPEN SOURCE EVERYTHING MANIFESTO: Transparency, Truth & Trust.

    • Jayesh Badwaik

      Out of the cathedral and the bazaar, only the bazaar is a sustainable creative open source model while the cathedral must prop itself up on some kind of external funding. And bazaar will be by its very nature fragmented. Try to standardize something, and soon the only model the standard will be able to sustain is a proprietary model.

      • Jayesh Badwaik

        This is my own personal opinion. I tried to edit the disqus but this is not working for now.

  • This is a great article.

    One correction – “Think GitHub, D3, Storm, Node.js, Rails, Mongo, Mesos or Spark.” – GitHub is one of the proprietary web services, not one of the pieces of open source software like the rest of the list.

    • Roger

      Drnic – Thanks for catching the error. I meant to type Git (too much time on Github as affected my muscle memory typing).

  • NoFriendofLarry

    MySQL is open as ever? You really think so? What has happened to the IBM i support since Oracle bought the product?

  • Pingback: Links 31/7/2012: Richard Stallman Remarks on Valve for GNU/Linux | Techrights()

  • Paul Henderson

    When I don’t get the response of “oh, really, heh, heh, no we don’t run on linux. What version of windows server do you have?” from application providers, open source hasn’t won. It is still a niche OS regardless of the myriad of linux servers powering google, facebook, etc. In the small/mid business world, the proprietary model is firmly entrenched due to lack of application availability and the fragmentation of the Open Source community (so many distros, so many oddly named apps, so much confusion).

  • Pingback: They promised us flying cars - O'Reilly Radar()

  • Patrick Masson

    Now, as you point out, open source has succeeded in proving its feasibility (shared development can provide high quality software that meets actual business needs) and viability (peer communities of development can create and maintain software) we are seeing a tremendous amount of growth in open source projects. My concern is, rather than finding exisitng projects and organizations using, collaborating, refactoring and contributing to those applications, many are starting their own new projects. In my area (education) there are 40+ open source learning management systems (that I know of). Recently, MIT announced they will be developing another, new, open source platform for their open courseware edX initiative in collaboration with Harvard: why? (see:

    It would seem to me that one of those 50 existing systems could provide a foundation for their needs with any modifications needed for their own use developed in line with the community. I am sure any one of those projects would welcome MIT and Harvard developers (and their grant funding) contributing to development efforts.

    As Eric Raymond said in the Cathedral and the Bazaar, “Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).”

    We need more great programmers!

    • Paul Henderson

      I agree with the premise of your excellent example. While the open source movement has spawned innovation and some truly great software, its lack of focus is, IMHO, its weakest aspect. The author cited some collaborations to watch, namely “Git, D3, Storm, Node.js, Rails, Mongo, Mesos or Spark”. Can anyone take a look at that list and tell me just from the names what these products do?

      “Word”, “Adobe Reader”, “Internet Explorer”, “MySQL”, “Google Talk” are descriptive names that connote a function. “Firefox”, “Thunderbird”, “Ubuntu” do not. I’ll give you a real world example.

      In our small publishing company (we publish 30 regional papers), the editors have been using Photoshop (another descriptive name) to prepare photos for publication. I realized that we were paying high license fees for a program that they only used to crop or lighten/darken the photo. So I installed GIMP. No one used it, and the reasons they gave were that they had no idea what it meant, and also said it is a derogatory term for a handicapped person!!!

      So I found “”. They use that happily. It connotes its function.

      If I were king, Firefox would be “Internet Window”, Thunderbird would be “FreeEmailReader”, and Ubuntu would be “EasyDesktop”.

      It isn’t the technically savvy we need to target these days, it is the great mass of the “unwashed”.

  • Open source is leading innovation which in some way will create more jobs

  • wstewart

    Next goal is the desktop and applications, and that can be easily done – with a virtual desktop architecture.

    Full disclosure – at Cirrus Computing we have packaged an enterprise cloud Intranet from dozens of pieces of the best open source, and make it avail on Ubuntu virtual desktops, available like magic on almost any device you wish to bring.

    Open source has won at the infrastructure level, and will win at the user interface level.