Why Open Source Failed

John Mark
10 min readJul 30, 2018
Money” by Andrew Magill CC-BY

(If you like this essay, you may be interested in my follow-up, “Save Open Source, Save the World”)

2018 is the 20th anniversary of the term “open source”, and a good number of articles have been written and conference talks given about this landmark year, the vast majority of which have been of the self-congratulatory, navel gazing type. Unfortunately, open source proponents seem unable or unwilling to tread into reflective contemplation about the actual impact open source has had on society at large, resulting in a rather large blind spot. I’m afraid, dear reader, that the world has left it to me, the guy who brought you such hits as “There is no Open Source Community” and “It Was Never About Innovation”, to tell you about the gross failure of open source as a mechanism to unlock a more equitable society and why we all need to be better. We may not be entirely responsible for either the problem or the solution, but we’re certainly complicit and, thus, responsible for helping to resolve the issues.

First, the good news, which is actually bad. In a 2016 survey from Blackduck, 96% of software products developed that year used open source software. That number is likely higher now. In the software world, particularly software that runs the computing infrastructure of the internet, open source is ubiquitous. One could claim, without any exaggeration, that our current world runs on open source software or that our modern world would not exist in its current form without open source software. I don’t know how to calculate the total value of open source software to the world, but I do know that if open source software suddenly went away, the results would be catastrophic, an existential crisis for humanity. So when I write that “open source has failed” I’m obviously not writing from a technology perspective, where it was been a clear-cut winner and the foundation of an endless supply of business models, products, and services. To say that open source contributed to the overall innovation of the world would be a shameful understatement. Better would be to say that the world’s computing innovations owe their existence to the triumph of open source development. If you think this all sounds pretty terrific, read on to find out what I left out.

Amusing sidebar: it is, in fact, only due to the sheer, abject stupidity of a not-insignificant…

John Mark

Recovering evangelical. Long essays on politics, society, tech, and the intersection thereof.