The Past, Present, and Future of Open Source

Last week Christina Cardoza of SD Times published an excellent article about the first 20 years of open source. I was interviewed for the article, but naturally only part of the interview was used (there were other excellent folks to speak with as well).

Here’s the complete text of that interview.


What really marked the start of open source software in your opinion?

What really marked the start of open source software was the start of Free Software. Without the genius insight of Richard Stallman (aka RMS) that existing copyright and licensing mechanisms could be leveraged to enable the distribution and sharing of software—freely and openly—none of us would be here talking about this today. There would have been no open source software history without the work of GNU, FSF, GNOME, and others. All of software development owes them a huge debt.

Any “start” demarcation beyond that assumes that open source software is an entirely different thing from free software, and that’s just not true. While there may be exceptions, generally speaking all free software is also open source, according to the open source definition. Beyond that there’s a spectrum starting at the stalwart reciprocity of the GPL and the Four Freedoms and running through to the neutral permissiveness of MIT licensed software.

Each end of this spectrum—and every point on it—is a philosophy, and each has existed since people started thinking about the nature of software. Therefore I don’t think there’s any way you can point at a single moment in the history of software and say, “There. That spark right there. That’s open source being born.” It’s not really possible. The release of Netscape or of Java may have captured mindshare and imaginations, but they’re lagging indicators of the birth of open source, not leading ones.

What did the open source landscape look like 20 years ago, and how have you seen it evolve?

Twenty years ago is right around when I was starting my tech career, so while I was aware of, used, and advocated for free and open source software I was more focused on finding my place in tech and paying off student loans than on contributing and becoming a part of the community. I didn’t become really dialed into the FOSS landscape for another three or four years, and wasn’t able to travel and explore that landscape widely for several years after that.So with that in mind…

I like to think of free and open source software as evolving through epochs or versions, much like any software would. FOSS v1.0 was the the dawn of Free Software thanks to RMS and the thousands of others who helped to bring Free Software into the world. This version is usually considered more “wild west” and programmer-driven. Programmers building tools for programmers, driven by a philosophical belief that Sharing Is Good And Right.

The launching of the Open Source Definition and the creation of the Open Source Initiative also brought with them the beginning of FOSS v2.0. In this version FOSS gained mindshare and acceptance, becoming normalised.

What we’re witnessing now is the beginning of FOSS v3.0. Free and open source have evolved from niche and mission-driven movements into Business As Usual. Version 3.0 is rocketing in—propelled by an explosion of corporate involvement, contribution, and sponsorship—but at this speed there’s a very real risk of losing sight of the mission and the bigger picture of FOSS. How are we in the free and open source software communities going to work with the corporations to teach them the human and business benefits of that bigger picture, and how are we going to help them continue to be involved, to contribute, and to sponsor FOSS, but also and importantly to understand and respect that mission? It’s a critical question and one not enough people are discussing.

What do you think was the tipping point for enterprises to realize the importance of open source software?

To be honest, most of them still haven’t realised the importance of free and open source software. I’ve seen companies shut down their open source programs. I’ve seen companies swear they don’t use any open source software and then seen the stunned looks on their faces when they’re shown how much of their stack is free and open source software. I’ve seen companies release fauxpen source, either by throwing unlicensed and unsupported projects over the wall and calling them “open source” or by releasing them under proprietary licenses and claiming they’re “open source” when at best they may be “source available.”

While, yes, there is that explosion of corporate involvement, contribution, and sponsorship, it’s fueled by a tiny fraction of companies. We’ve come a long way, and it’s been wonderful to be along for the ride, but it’s unfair to say that we’ve already crossed the tipping point as there’s still so much work yet to do. That’s our task as we develop and evolve FOSS v3.0.

What is the state of open source software today, and what areas still need to be improved?

For all the decades of their existence, the predominant development approach of most of free and open source software has been “by programmers for programmers.” That’s gotten us this far, and that’s great. However, we’re not going to move FOSS much further if we don’t shift from that approach to one of “by programmers for others.” The usability, accessibility, and documentation of most FOSS projects are in such a state as to be entirely out of reach of people who don’t spend their lives steeped in technology and software development. We’re not going to further the missions of free and open source software if we can’t start developing software that reaches out to a new market of users and, most importantly, meets them where they are rather than expecting them to read code, edit config files, or open up a terminal just to perform basic tasks. If FOSS can’t expand beyond the server and the enterprise then it will never realise the dreams that brought it to life in the first place.

Answers (c) VM Brasseur; Licensed CC BY-SA

Questions (c) Christina Cardoza