Open Source Is Dead

In the last year, I have heard a couple very smart people involved in the free software movement call open source dead or dying. This is clearly intended as a provocative statement — the nature of the critique is not immediately apparent — but I think that it might be true.

Most people reading this will know that open source is a movement started to distance the software created by the free software movement from the movement’s people and ideals. Open source exists as an answer to the fear that people who wear suits will run away every time they hear the word freedom. Open source folks argue that you can sell free software by emphasizing the practical benefits and wrapping the code in new, more business-friendly term.

For a period of time, open source seemed spectacularly successful. The people in suits latched onto the idea and thrust the movement into the spotlight. Open source could be found in the business sections of the newspaper, and the NASDAQ’s swelling list of explosive tech IPOs in the late 1990s.

With Raymond’s "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" freshly thumbed on their bedside tables, executives and engineers alike stuck the GPL and the source code for their latest development project into a neat little package and onto a website. They sat back waited for bugs to start disappearing. They were usually disappointed.

There are many practical benefits to open source, but with time and with the sense of self-reevaluation that the bursting of the dot-com bubble brought, many people looked more closely at open source’s claim that their software was, in all situations, inherently better than proprietary software. Open Source is inherently better — but only for some definitions of better. For those whose definition of better involves the immediate and constant growth of a company’s stock price, there may be reasons to be less uncritically optimistic than we all were in 1999.

Since the peak of the bubble, we’ve seen many companies abandon their faith in the gospel of open source. Linuxcare has a new name an a new business model selling proprietary software. Red Hat is betting on Red Hat Enterprise Linux which, while still embracing the letter and licenses of open source, seems to depend more on the restrictive power of trademark law than Eric Raymond’s word and the inherent power of the community. In some situations, the open bug tracking systems from the boom have shriveled and disappeared. The GPL is still in effect, but development has moved back inside the shops.

But my story so far is one of ideology, not of terminology, and not of the software in question.

While the ideology of open source seems to be waning in popularity, the term "open source" is growing in strength. More importantly, the software itself is bigger than ever and growing quickly. In Spain, regional governments are embracing "open source" and software libre. In Munich, in Brazil, and in non-profit organizations and schools around the globe, "open source" is a familiar phrase.

People haven’t stopped talking about and deploying open source, but the people who do this today are not the people who bought stock in VA Linux’s IPO. Ironically, those talking about open source today increasingly use the term to refer to the ideals and ideas of the free software movement which the open source initiative sought to deemphasize. When people say "open source," they are increasingly often speaking about "free software."

A handful of examples can illustrate this point:

  • Ubuntu, which uses both the terms open source and free software, paraphrases important parts of the free software Definition (FSD) in their philosophy page — so even when they use the term "open source", they are talking about freedom.
  • David Turner, licensing guru for the Free Software Foundation, has told me that he has seen the term open source defined verbatim as the FSD.
  • Sergio Amadeu, technology czar for the Brazilian presidency sued for libel by Microsoft, routinely talks about the essential role of freedom in software.

In these examples and in non-profit organizations and in groups of computer users from across the developing world, people are as much driven by their desire for software freedom and institutional independence as they are by their desire for a cheap OS and an alternative to DRM. People are increasingly often talking about free software — even when they are using the words "open source".

Richard Stallman throws a fit every time he hears the word "open source" used in reference to his work. What he should be angry about is the confusion of the goals of the free software movement with the goals of open source. Stallman doesn’t seem to see that the term open source’s relationship to the two sets of goals is increasingly confused.

I will continue to talk about free software because I like disambiguating the term and explaining why I think that software and information freedom is a good thing. But I’m increasingly skeptical that the term "free software" can win. While the label "open source" will triumph, the concept will not. It’s not my ideal world but I think I will be happy.