The silent victories of open source

Tux, the Linux penguin
Image via Wikipedia

For years, free/libre/open source software (henceforth referred to as FLOSS) have proclaimed, year after year, how that year is the year of Linux, or the year that open source will become mainstream, or the year that open source will finally take off etc. But it never has, at least traditionally speaking. Linux based desktops haven’t penetrated either the enterprise or consumer markets; with a few notable exceptions (Apache httpd, for instance), most FLOSS products — be it office software like OpenOffice, multimedia software such as Gimp or Inkscape — remain popular with economically insignificant niches. And yet, this year, more than ever before, open source forges ahead with its silent victories.

Consider the following shifts:

  • all the top brands of the day — Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon — they ALLstand tall on the shoulders of FLOSS giants.
  • Contributing software back to the open source community is becoming increasingly common, even expected. Take a look at the GitHub repositories of Twitter and Facebook, or the various Google projects. In fact, when screening engineering candidates, I often look for and encourage people to talk about their open source contributions.
  • Most of the activity around “big data” and “cloud computing” is being driven in large part by FLOSS, whether it is the Hadoop-powered ecosystem or the Xen/Linux powered Amazon Web Services.
  • Given the current smartphone landscape, it is highly likely that Android will become ubiquitous on tablet devices and a variety of consumer smart phones. Already, Android has more search mindshare than Linux, despite the fact that Linux is part of the Android stack.
  • If you start a software company today, I would bet that you will find yourself bootstrapping almost entirely using open source software. The entire development process — from the GCC compiler toolchain, to the build systems, to the scripting languages, to the version control systems, to the code review systems, to the continuous integration systems — everything is dominated by FLOSS products. Good bug trackers and enterprise Wikis are the last bastions but it is just a matter of time.

I’ve had a chance to see the enterprise software market up close and increasingly find more and more open source everywhere I look. FLOSS has not arrived, it has taken over.

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