Where is open source heading?


by Mårten Mickos CEO of Eucalyptus. Formerly CEO of MySQL
What a difference time makes! Back in 2001 when I took the job as CEO of MySQL AB, free and open source software (FOSS) was an exciting escapade for the brave ones only. The FOSS movement had been around for some time already, and the communities were not insignificant. But from a perspective of industry, business and common citizens, open source was the brave new thing that many people admired but few were ready to support.

Looking back

Back in Finland, where both Linux and MySQL had originally been developed, a cautious and nervous pride was brewing. Open source was amazing, but would it mesh well with the orderly and institutional instincts of Finnish, and more broadly Nordic, society? Despite the modernity of the Nordic model, it took time for people to get used to the thought of full openness, unlimited participation and the freedom to use, modify and redistribute software code.

But we needed not worry. Open source became one of the leading IT trends of the first decade of this century. Red Hat’s stellar growth paved the way for the rest of us, and soon JBoss and MySQL were not just household names among developers but household names among purchasing managers too. The disruption the LAMP stack and others caused to the incumbent players in the software industry was a perfect example of the Innovator’s Dilemma as described by Professor Clayton Christensen. No wonder that large corporations were circling around the small and innovative open source companies – trying to figure whether to ignore them, love them, hate them, or try to swallow them.

What is open source?

It would have been easy in those days to mistake open source for an industry or a market. But that’s not what free and open source software is. FOSS is a way to produce software, and thanks to its brilliant licensing, also a way to distribute software. That’s it. It is not an industry, nor a market or a business model. A better way to produce the goods, and a better way to distribute them. That’s why we always compared MySQL to IKEA and DELL. Those two companies disrupted their own markets with smarter manufacturing and smarter access to customers.

Today, ten years later, FOSS is again going through fundamental changes. The world is changing, and open source has to and will change too. Looking back, the good news is that open source is now permeating every major aspect of software and IT world. There is not a single market leader in the software space that does not have an open source aspect to its strategy – not a single one. The bad news, if you will, is that although we dreamt about it back in the early 2000s, open source did not take over the entire world. Despite FOSS being a superior way to produce software, there still are many organizations who prefer secrecy over openness. Well, we are only about a decade or two into this, so perhaps we should not expect full victory yet. Give us another 10 or 20 years and hopefully all code will be open.

Another major change for FOSS is that whereas previously most pieces of software were distributed and re-distributed, today with cloud computing this is many times not the case. In cloud computing scenarios, the software may never leave its home harbor. It may be developed in-house and installed on a server that provides a service to the world. No distribution of software happens. This lack of distribution also affects the reciprocal licenses. Many developers of free software want all modifications to their software to be open too, for why would some people develop open code just to see others using it in a closed fashion? For software that is distributed, the GPL license provides protection against closedness. For software that is not distributed, the AGPL license provides an analogous protection. Important is that what once was open shall always remain open.

Looking into the future

As we move forward on the evolutionary path of software – a path that points squarely at cloud computing – I can see free and open source software taking a variety of roles. Inspired by the disruptive effect of open source software in the last decade, others will try to do the same. One could argue that Google embarked on the Android project in order to disrupt existing players in the mobile handset market. Inspired by the business success of Red Hat, JBoss and MySQL, many startups will follow their path and build impressive businesses around an open source product. This trend has been going on for some time already and we now have a strong class of midsized open source companies focused on scaling their business. Think of SugarCRM, Zend, Alfresco, JasperSoft, Pentaho, MuleSoft, Magento Software and others.

New companies will enter the cloud computing space with open source products in order to quickly build a community, an installed base and an ecosystem. As always, some really smart developers will single-handedly or in small groups crank out amazing open source software products – just because they need it themselves or because they want to show they can build it. Of those numerous projects, some will grow into vital positions in the new software stack, setting the standard for what open source can accomplish. As the world shifts over – finally – from the client/server era into the cloud infrastructure era, the software stacks will be redesigned and new winners will emerge. My bet is on open source.

Mårten Mickos

Twitter: @martenmickos