If you had told me 25 years ago that open source would be the predominant force in software development, I would’ve laughed.
Back then, at my industrial software gig, we were encouraged to patent as much IP as possible, even processes that seemed like common-sense business practices, or generally useful capabilities for any software developer.
If you didn’t, your nearest competitor would surely come out with their own patent claims, or inevitable patent trolls would show up demanding fees for any uncovered bit of code.
We did have this one developer who was constantly talking about fiddling with his Linux kernel at home, on his personal time. Interesting hobby.
It is hard to fathom how much the whole Linux open-source franchise is worth today when you look at all of the Apache servers and related open Linux-related projects that are in production now in huge enterprises, across so many different technology spaces. In 2015 a Linux Foundation study estimated the total development contribution value to the codebase at US$5 billion — or 41,192.25 collaborative years of work!
Taking down barriers to entry
Is open source leveling the playing field for startups? We are seeing small enterprises going from zero to delivering enterprise-grade tools and platforms within 12-18 months — utilizing Kubernetes clusters atop hybrid IT infrastructure, running in ready-made templates in elastic cloud services or on bare metal in data centers.
The new open startup doesn’t see the need to defend patents — they can literally give away the code to their software in exchange for the opportunity to have it catch on with other developers, and that paying enterprises or SaaS subscribers will trust them to support that code in the future and build upon it.
But wait, if small startups can benefit from being able to incorporate so much open R&D innovation right out of the box, could that open IP help more established companies differentiate even more significantly?
From proprietary to commercial open source
With each new ring added to the trunk of this open-source tree, comes a unique vendor. Commercial open-source companies like CloudBees and Pivotal build their reputation by supporting open-source developers seeking to push the boundaries of Agile development and continuous delivery.
Success in commercial open source requires a careful balance of contribution and evangelism to the ecosystem — which may contain direct competitors who leverage the code themselves — combined with the ability to upsell related tools and services.
What matters is the open source ecosystem. Almost nothing is proprietary anymore, so value comes from net adoption. So whether you are SmartBear contributing to Swagger for APIs, or MongoDB, or Chef opening up its stack and making IaC recipes available to all on GitHub, there’s a reinvention afoot for many established vendors.
Big companies have an increased appetite for compliance — and they are willing to pay vendors handsomely for enterprise-level support, certified builds and regular updates. They can realize the benefits of open-source software with far less risk.
Large vendors can afford to take a longer view
It’s not just small companies getting on the open source game, which was once famously dubbed a ‘cancer’ by former Microsoft head Steve Ballmer. Major technology players are competing to dominate the open source lane. Think back 15 years ago, who’d believe IBM would invest $1 billion in an IDE called Eclipse? Or, that Microsoft would return to trump them 10 years later with Visual Studio, a completely open IDE that 70 percent of the worlds developers now use? Or, that IBM would spend $32 billion on Red Hat, a company that distributed its own approved versions of Linux and OpenStack software?
Look to job satisfaction
If open source causes businesses to become more transparent and contribute to the greater good, it may not equalize every other industry, but it has certainly made software development a better one to be in.