How open source grew up

In the late 1990s and early 2000s I worked for Australian Linux Today. At that time open source was a vibrant, yet immature, market.

Visiting the Open Source Open Society 2015 conference in Wellington this week was like watching someone else’s child who you knew as a smart but awkward teenager, transformed into a smart, professional adult.

Open source grew up.

Linux didn’t dominate

When I was writing daily about Linux, the operating system and open source apps were already hard at work in data centres, on servers and on high-end workstations.

The IT market was still moving away from a model where servers came with an expensive to buy and expensive to support operating system linked to the hardware maker.

Some of those OSes were fully proprietary. Others were versions of Unix although they often had proprietary branding and non-open components.

Much of my writing centred on asking how people and companies could make a living from the new model. We all knew that money could be made from selling services, but that didn’t look like enough revenue to sustain technology companies and jobs.[1]

So the open source crowd spent a lot of time trying to create related products, usually apps, that they could charge money for.

Desktop Linux proved a diversion

There was something else going on. The open source movement looked to displace Microsoft on the PC desktop. Linux set out to challenge Windows and open source apps jockeyed to capture share away from the likes of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and MYOB.

In one sense the PC open source explosion never happened. In part that was because Microsoft changed tack to see off the threat. Among other things the price of desktop apps fell. The commercial software developers bundled more value into their products and attempted to shorten the time between releases.

Most of all, they had to sharpen their act. That meant creating cleaner, more robust applications. It was about this time the overall reliability of everything PC related switched from not-acceptable to not-all-that bad.[2]

Open source everywhere

There are still hold outs who use desktop Linux. I thought I might see some at Open Source Open Society 2015. In the event I think I briefly glimpsed something that resemlbed a desktop version of Linux, but in truth the conference was dominated by devices sporting the Apple logo.

That last sentence would have enraged the open source community in 2000. Today there’s little of that kind of sensitivity.

And anyway, Apple’s OS X is, like Linux, a Unix operating system. Large parts of OS X are open source.

Android

Android is the other operating system widely seen at the OSOS2015 event. While there’s some debate about the relationship between Google, Android and open source, at core the phone operating system is fully open. You could grab the source code and create your own Android fork.

Even Microsoft and Windows have embraced open source ideas in many ways since 2000.

Sure, it’s not perfect. There are question marks, but while open source never won a pitched battle against proprietary software to conquer the PC desktop, open source DNA is everywhere you look.

Open source economics

Perhaps the most grown up thing about today’s open source is that businesses have learnt how to use it to make money. This was mentioned briefly by Catalyst IT founder Don Christie in the session on when to choose open or closed source software.

Open source companies make money from wrapping services around free software. It’s not as much money as selling popular proprietary software. Services don’t scale as quickly as a runaway hit app.

Selling services doesn’t subsidise as many overblown long lunches. Nor does it require as many well-paid sales people. On the other hand, because many services are charged by the hour, it does mean plenty of good jobs for people with the right skills.


  1. This turned out to be the case, the economic changes of moving from proprietary to open source were devastating for most companies. Many didn’t make it. On the other hand, the possible death of moving to open source trumped the certain death of not moving .  ↩
  2. In hindsight it’s easy to forget just how flaky most software was at the time. It was also before auto-saving was perfected so crashes that lost a whole day’s work were not unknown.  ↩

Open source grew up

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