Open Source Has NOT Failed

2018 is the Year of Open Source. No need to look far to understand why, and have reason to celebrate. Which is why I was surprised by today’s Medium Daily Digest email subject: Why Open Source Failed published by John Mark”. Presumably inspired by MSFT/Github in June, and now with 1K claps, Medium knew that John’s throat punch of a title and essay would be of particular interest again, given IBM/RHT. Albeit very well written, I believe John’s title/conclusion — when taken literally — is wrong and misleading.

First of all, I am really glad that my comments will be taken constructively. I’ve never spoken to him, but I trust John Mark Walker. More importantly, regardless of commentary and claps, this level of courageously honest communication is what we practice.

So, here we go. Tea? … Coffee? … You may want to get some.

  1. I do not believe open source failed. I see it succeeding every day inside our company, with our customers, and in the ecosystem. I witness it succeeding with my team and my suppliers, including The Big Q from Meltwater. I witnessed it with the wicked smart undergraduate WashU Hyperloop Team, and from the SF Ballet Community Development team. I feel it in my personal relationships. I see it, hear it, and have the chance to set the example for it — every day.
  2. I do not believe government will be an answer here. Maybe it is, but I do not believe it. The nationalist governments I am currently most familiar with could not be trusted with the global issue of accelerating pure open source. Moreover, government restrictions placed on the tools of a corporate monopoly are just requests for the monopoly’s leadership to get new tools. i.e. do you ever blame the hammer when you hit your thumb? You do. Oh. Well…should you?

+1 John, “Once you come to the realization that you are part of the problem, as I have over the past few years, you must act to help resolve it.”

Moreover, I applaud John and the many others that are openly raising concern and openly engaging on the future of open source software. Frankly, I find it sadly ironic when highly intelligent technology engineers engage on open source topics but do not practice openness and applaud openness more openly. Openness to opinion does not require acceptance. Rejection of opinion is an oddly closed behavior. So, even if you think the tone or a few details are off base, don’t miss the point that may be missing from John Mark’s exact words, or from the concerned words of the many like him that share a conviction to the open source ethos.

Before you hit comment and say ‘Dude, you don’t make any sense!’…I would simply suggest you read John’s self-identified brand: “all-around rabble-rouser.” And appreciate that his first paragraph includes “the world has left it to me”. Certainly a bit arrogant — ok, it’s dripping with arrogance. Or maybe that is just sarcasm…which stems from anger…created by a hamstrung desire to trust others. The melodrama of my words is intended. If he was truly arrogant and he felt all his statements should be taken as omniscient gospel, would John be writing about the current fight for OPEN SOURCE software and the ongoing fight that FREE and OPEN SOURCE software waged decades ago? Would the frustration in his words be so palatable if he wanted his headline to be true?

Divide and Dominate

[I believe] John is trying to stir the societal pot to bring attention back to the vision of open source: openness enables disruption of the power structures that divide. Open source was/is not about free for the pure sake of lowering costs. Free Software isn’t even really about $0, but rather zero restrictions.

Math basics from school: division makes things smaller. 
Bully basics from school: it’s easier to dominate something smaller.

The open source vision wasn’t a vision for maximizing TCO for an individual company. It was a vision for maximizing economic growth for the integrated community. Which is why John aptly points out that some see OSS as ‘communist’. In a weird way, it makes sense that some VCs lower a start-up’s valuation when it releases open source software. However, they do so out of misunderstanding of open source, rather than an informed appreciation for its direction and the long term vision.

Nope, wasn’t just about $$$. FOSS was about the open creation of, contribution to, and use of software, because software has been and will continue to be so transformative for the entire world, it should not be restricted and allowed to be a proprietary weapon that is used to dominate.

Just as the possession of information was once a source of power and influence before the printing press→libraries→the spread of literacy→the internet→and ultimately big data technology, so too was information technology when the open source movement began. I would suggest the cloud era ushered us into the age where open source literacy began spreading wildly. If in fact 96% of software products developed in 2016 included OSS, then maybe the paydays for Github and RHT will mark the beginning of open source’s internet age — metaphorically speaking of course. :) Maybe.

But, even if we are all entering a new age, has our natural desire to dominate gone away in the last 20–30 years? Again, nope. If today, many companies use the power of OSS as a weapon to dominate, are you actually surprised? I’m sure you’re aware that technology is used with malicious intent to take from and harm the rest of the community every day. The real secret here is that it doesn’t require ANY amount of political power, physical strength or monetary wealth to use software — open or closed — for evil doing. All it takes is a person to sit down at the keyboard.

Shit … we made it

Personally, I believe people are feeling compelled to chime in loudly right now because open source has reached an amazing milestone this year. Visionary Red Hat will be acquired by Iconic IBM in the LARGEST software acquisition in history. Honestly, to think Team Open Source will die just because it’s star player gets the biggest contract in history — come one. But I digress. But, with every milestone comes the day after, when the future is uncertain and a little scary. The very same power structures that the open source vision aimed to disrupt have indeed been disrupted significantly by open source software. Microsoft and IBM have committed $40B+ to the open source movement. These are uncharted and slightly scary waters.

I am not sure if it’s because the two tech giants, that have given so much to the world, have magically seen the light of open source. I’m not sure if they have picked up the torch that Github and Red Hat have carried for so many years…or if they are doing it based purely on their potential financial gains. Likely, both. But…the point is they made the commitments. Think of it as 40B disruptions. Or, 40B pull requests. I would suggest Microsoft and IBM had no choice but to take a big gulp of the OSS Kool-Aid. The revolution has reached a point where the regime cannot ignore it or give it (more) lip-service. So, let’s celebrate this as a victory for open source. Let’s celebrate it by practicing it. Be open to what is going on and going to happen. Stand up for the community. And continue being honest. (just don’t be a jerk about it)

Open Source has NOT failed. It’s vision is just taking longer to realize, and it’s being tested in ways that are hard for some people to stomach.

John Mark questions, “If the proliferation of open source software cannot begin to resolve our issues with concentration of wealth in the technology industry, and in fact exacerbates it, then what good is it?” I believe this is a question that we should consider as a community of technology suppliers and technology consumers. Knowing you’ve been reading for a few minutes, I will point out Suppliers+Consumers=Market. So, yes I’m suggesting the entire global market should think about why John Mark posits “Why Open Source Failed” and why he and others feel compelled to speak up/out in support of open source.

If that’s an easy answer for you, then please consider why it is that the vision is taking longer to realize. As we consider that, we need to look in the mirror.

I, like many, do not want to see the principles of free(dom) and open(ness) lose any more ground to the principles that drive companies to build walls in order to defend what they have built: $$ and (intellectual) property. But, we cannot blame companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and others that have innovated and continue to change the world in amazing ways. Companies are just people. [$mirror] Human behavior and the all too natural tendency to defend with closed fists is the behavior that drives (too) many companies, organizations, and governments. A closed fist cannot be open to capture any value. i.e. If you hold on to your crayons too tightly, you won’t make any friends.

With acknowledgement that I am an open source newbie, I am not a newbie to its principles. With humility, I ask: are you and I — are we — doing as much as we can as individuals, as leaders, as teammates, and as global market citizens to drive the vision of open source? If you don’t know the vision or you are at arm’s length from the technology industry, here are a few resources that explain how the vision is much larger than technology.

This issue matters. A lot.

Open Source has not failed! If it does, it will not be because the ethos, pathos, or logos of open source failed. It will be because we let 40B disruptions turn us around, and close us off. It will be because we as people failed to fight hard enough against our natural instincts because natural is easier. It will be because we as a community failed to recognize, believe, and amplify the power and potential of OPEN _______.