Open Source Evolution: From Making Better Code to Making Better Business
In the 13 years since I founded an open source software company, both the movement and industry have gone mainstream, and software development has undergone profound methodological and structural change.
Back in the day, waterfall software development ruled. Software design, coding and quality control were managed “top-down” by a bevy of software managers and a bunch of programmers. As this approach was introduced by IBM in big enterprises in the 1960’s, it was not designed to leverage the power of the internet as both a distributed file system and development environment and did not consider ubiquitous, lightning-fast network communications outside the firewall. Moreover, it was also not designed for today’s mobile software development projects.
Free software gives the user certain freedoms, including zero cost. Open-source software has a practical approach with some licenses and therefore involves potential restrictions, but the greatest freedom it introduced was the ability to look at source code.
In the early days, four open-source projects – Linux, Apache, MySQL and Perl/PHP/Python (a.k.a., “LAMP”) – dominated. LAMP illuminated the way for the uninitiated to transition into this brave new world and encourage coders’ contributions to projects. Many open-source licenses were in use then, but the GNU General Public License (GPL) prevailed.
This world was described as “the Wild West” because most projects did not follow rigid hierarchal communications lines, many talented coders were unpaid, and yet, organized production of free projects were done on schedule and evolved to be better than their proprietary equivalents. Even so, many pragmatic software developers and company founders – including me – believed that both free and open-source software could live together with proprietary software. Today, the proprietary software model continues to survive and, in some cases, expand.
In time, open source companies emerged and were referred to as “pure play” commercial open-source ventures. Mine, called Black Duck Software, is a means for software developers to interrogate source and object code and determine the provenance of code snippets, segments, blocks and trees, and also to help identify security concerns.
Today, open-source software is thriving in the Cloud, with a whole new generation of projects – such as Docker, Heroku, Open Stack and others. Cumulatively, GNU is still the leading license, but MIT, Apache and other licenses are among the top licenses used in open-source projects.
While the venture capital community supported disruptive innovation by funding many OSS pure plays and related downstream companies, revenues, product strategy, acquisitions, and other factors have also impacted proprietary companies, such as IBM, HP, Microsoft, and Oracle. Thanks to the open-source movement, these companies are leaner, more efficient, and more responsive to customer requirements. Also, countless innovative companies have emerged, taking advantage of open source projects to offer commercial services in support of these projects and, later, leveraging the code in their apps, platforms, and in the cloud.
The free and open-source movements helped usher in the era of free sampling or the so-called “Culture of Free,” which is ubiquitous today in e-commerce, enterprise, and B2C new product offerings. These movements also helped usher in the concept of community management for customers, influencers, groups with specialized skills or interests (e.g., software developers) and others. Accessing value from a community or “crowd” via the internet contributed inevitably to crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. The lower cost of software brought on by open-source software has also helped drive big data and analytics and the adoption of mobile phone technologies.
I was recently driving through Boston traffic in an Uber and the driver said, “Maybe they could solve this traffic problem by open sourcing it.” Clearly, the movement’s approach to the problem has gone mainstream.
Douglas Levin is a strategy, marketing and sales partner at TechCXO LLC based in Boston. He founded Black Duck Software in December 2002 and served as CEO until 2010 and on the Board of Directors until 2012.