image image 5th January 2016

Why has the world gone Open Source Mad?

…Open Source software was built by a small number of elite ninja programmers. They were highly-skilled, very rare and driven by altruism, and, often, anger. As the late and great Terry Pratchett said:

“It’s not worth doing something unless someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing it”

The last 12 months have seen some truly huge changes in how traditional ‘proprietary’ technology companies work. For quite a few years now, big companies have been sharing some of their own code with the world.

Back in the mists of time (or 1999) the Apache Software Foundation was created as an organisation and framework for creating software ‘for the public good’… and scarily enough, you could use the software for free. To put this into context, 1999 was the year Microsoft was gently reminded that using its monopoly on PC operating systems to put people like Netscape out of business wasn’t very nice – and that they should stop (more on that here).

Even before this, a grumpy chap by the name of Linus Torwalds was working on creating an Open Source operating system – later to become known as Linux, which is pretty popular.

However, despite the presence of the some pretty significant Open Source projects, the technology world was dominated by players like Microsoft, Sun, Oracle and Hewlet-Packard. Anti-competition, patent and IP infringement law suits were rife, and organisations jealously guarded all of their proprietary technology. In a couple of (possibly) ill-advised outpourings of opinion, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer set the company in a very clear anti Open Source stance.

Winding forward to the closing months of 2015, a few things have changed…

  • Apple has outsourced its Swift programming language (with quite an amusing gaffe stating they were the first to adopt an Open Source strategy)
  • In a shocking turn around, Microsoft released as an Open Source project. In addition to this, Microsoft are now offering Linux certifications. Yes. You read that correctly.
  • Google released TensorFlow, its AI kit…
  • GCHQ gave us their graph database, Gaffer (I think we’re all quite glad they’re not giving us anything else right now. Some things should probably stay hidden!)
  • Netflix has released… well… all of the code.

The most commonly used database, MySQL is Open Source. The Big Data revolution has been driven by Hadoop, an Open Source project. If you want to build something new today, the chances are you’ll be building on top of an existing Open Source project.

Most of these projects reside on GitHub. You can download the source code, change it where necessary, and then run it. Simple.

So… What happened? How did an entity like Microsoft make such a huge about-turn in a relatively small space of time (other than toppling Steve B)?

People are more valuable than code

Well… It looks as though Open Source became cool. And for something to be cool for a large software business, it also means it needs to be economically viable.

I think the reason for this is quite straight forward – we’re starting to realise that the value of our software is not in the code itself. It’s in the fingers and brains of those who write it. As a small group of individuals, we can’t hope to think all the thoughts that all other developers have had over the last who-knows-how-many years. If we were to start everything from scratch, then we’d never get any further than writing the printer drivers. However, if we are willing to step into the Open Source community, we can borrow all these things from others – and contribute back. This means that software can be built in significantly shorter timescales. Even better, there is a huge community out there who will review your code, provide critical feedback, and help you test it.

So – by embracing Open Source, you’ll probably end up with a set of developers who can build things for you faster, getting you to market faster. Elements of the software they build will have been battle-tested in environments significantly harsher than your own. And, most importantly, you can keep your developers challenged and engaged.

No magic wand

Now don’t get me wrong. There will be times when you spend hours swearing at an Open Source project (Lewis is currently sat opposite me doing just that right now). They’re not perfect… in fact, they’re far from that. But that’s where your people come in. With some experience, they’ll be able to tell you which projects you can adopt, which are scarily bad, and which ones should never have been written.

There’s lots of nonsense about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ when people talk about Open Source. I prefer to think of it as lots of us forming a human pyramid. Writing code. | Why has the world gone Open Source mad?

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