Open Source is Eating the World

Open source turns 20 this year — happy birthday! In this blog I will touch on several aspects of open source software (OSS) and tell you why I think it’s so important.

Why is open source so valuable?

There are a number of reasons:

First of all, you don’t have to pay license fees or subscriptions. You can just download and use the software.

Second, you avoid vendor lock-ins and increase the flexibility of your technology choices. It’s easier to replace OSS with an alternative.

Third, you can innovate. This doesn’t seem to be so obvious an advantage, but open source is often leading-edge, and you can experiment with it at an early stage.

Last, but not least: the true value of OSS lies in its community. The OSS product is only as good as the people who surround it. It’s the community that develops and maintains the software.

Enterprise open source

Enterprises that are involved with software engineering need to develop open source strategies. The Linux Foundation recently published an excellent ebook: Enterprise Open Source: A Practical Introduction. It explains why open source matters and the lessons learned over the last two decades. Essentially, there are different levels of involvement with OSS, from consumption to leadership. I really recommend reading this guide.

The rise of OSS on the server side

In 1991, Linus Torvalds created Linux which is now one of the most popular operating systems, at least on the server side and for mobile devices in the form of Android.

Most of the companies I know are using Linux on their servers and other Unixes are dying out. And the same will happen to proprietary, heavyweight, commercial application servers as well — consider the alternatives Docker and Kubernetes (there are those who claim that Kubernetes is the new application server.)

OSS in public administration

The city of Bern is planning to procure an OSS-based platform for its schools. According to this article (German), it will cost a lot of money even if there are no license costs for the software. It’s a good thing to support OSS, but this will cast a bad light on it.

Why is it still so expensive? I can think of three main reasons: first, vendors of proprietary software, like Microsoft and Apple, will give away their software practically for free because scholars are their future customers. Second, the operating company is not really known to be cost effective; there is a lot of needless overhead to be financed. And third, the offering includes iPads, which are very proprietary and expensive.

In the end, this will cost a lot of money because the same will happen as did with the LiMux project in Munich (German article). Open source on the desktop has had a hard time, and the best office software still comes from market dominator, Microsoft. Users will likely be unhappy with LibreOffice, and the only real alternative would be Google Docs, which is free, but proprietary and hosted in the cloud.

My own contributions

From 2005 to 2009, I was the maintainer of the JadClipse decompiler plugin for Eclipse, hosted at SourceForge. It was one of the most popular third-party Eclipse plugins — to date, the plugin has been downloaded over two million times with peaks of more than 20,000 downloads per month. The plugin was no longer being maintained by its original creator, so I took it over because it didn’t fit with future Eclipse releases but had a huge user community, yet there was nobody willing to contribute to it.

JMoney was an open source project that I started 2001 to learn Java. That was also when I definitively switched from Windows to Linux (Debian), but I was missing software with which to track my personal finances. To date, the original software has been downloaded over 47,000 times. It has also been forked and rewritten for the web, but I never managed to grow a community and today the web version serves me as a reference web app project on GitHub.

I have never been fully engaged with any larger open source projects, and my GitHub profile shows that I only contribute occasionally. My interests have shifted and writing and maintaining software is a very time-consuming business. Nevertheless, I value open source and I have found other ways of giving back to the community, like writing this blog.

In short, open source will eat the world. It already dominates in several areas and will continue to grow — not only for idealistic reasons, but also for very rational and economic ones.