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13 September 2010, 16:02

Here is the New Open Source

by Glyn Moody

A recent column in The H Open posed a question: 'The "best open source software for business" list contains almost exclusively well-known contributors. Is there no more new open source?'

It's an important issue, because it picks up on a persistent line of criticism that goes all the way back to the famous 1998 Halloween Document, an internal Microsoft strategy report that offered perhaps the first deep glimpse into the company's thinking about open source:

When describing this problem to JimAll[chin], he provided the perfect analogy of "chasing tail lights". The easiest way to get coordinated behaviour from a large, semi-organized mob is to point them at a known target. Having the tail lights provides concreteness to a fuzzy vision. In such situations, having a tail light to follow is a proxy for having strong central leadership.

Of course, once this implicit organizing principle is no longer available (once a project has achieved "parity" with the state-of-the-art), the level of management necessary to push towards new frontiers becomes massive.

The view here is that open source is only capable of “chasing tail lights” – that is, producing free versions of existing products – and is inherently unable to innovate.

That meme was still around in 2006, when The Economist published a particularly clueless piece about open source and related areas. Unfortunately (or, on second thoughts, maybe fortunately) this has long since disappeared into paywall purdah, but I quoted one of the key sections in a blog post at the time: source might already have reached a self-limiting state, says Steven Weber, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of “The Success of Open Source” (Harvard University Press, 2004). “Linux is good at doing what other things already have done, but more cheaply – but can it do anything new? Wikipedia is an assembly of already-known knowledge,” he says.

Perhaps the best response to that question is to point to this cute little thing called the internet – you may have heard of it. This was not a commercial project, not patented, not proprietary. It has always been open, from its underlying protocols to the code used to run DNS, most of the Web and to send most emails. Its extraordinary flowering, and the way it has replaced closed and proprietary solutions at every level (protocols, standards, code, services) is the best demonstration of the innovative power of openness you could ask for.

Of course, the commentary in The H Open is posing a much more specific and intelligent question: not “Can open source ever innovate?”, but “Where is the innovation in commercial open source software?” As the article makes clear, that's a valid concern for businesses that need to make money from open source, but not necessarily one for the open source world – an important difference.

The reason it's not a problem for open source as a whole is that what we are seeing in the world of commercial apps is part of something that has been under way ever since free software existed: the software stack is being progressively commoditised by open source code. A less charitable way of putting this is that open source has succeeded when it improves to the point of being able to replace all the rival proprietary systems – and makes that sector somewhat boring as a result.

This process began at the lowest level, with fundamental operating system code being written to create the basis of an entire free software ecosystem. Once that was on course to overtake commercial systems – and therefore beginning to run out of sufficiently appealing hacking challenges – people started to work on key middleware applications that would run on it, where there were new problems to be solved. That was some time back: remember, Apache has been around for 15 years, as has MySQL, and the LAMP stack combining them with GNU/Linux and programming languages goes back at least to 1998, when the term was coined.

Once the middleware had been sorted out in the early years of this millennium, the next generation of hackers moved on to new challenges, turning their attention to core business software applications – until then, almost exclusively the domain of big, expensive proprietary offerings. As those markets matured, and the initial confusion of rival programs was winnowed down by competition, leaders soon emerged in each sector. It is precisely these that were dubbed “best open source software for business”, and which gave rise to The H Open comment piece.

Next: The answer to the question

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