Open source software is thriving, but it faces challenges related to cloud computing, IoT, corporate control, software forks and more.
It's a new year, and open source software is more popular than ever. But the open source community is also confronting a new set of challenges. Here's what open source programmers and companies will need to do to keep thriving in 2017.
There is no denying that open source has come a very long way in a relatively short time. In January 2007, only a handful of major companies were invested heavily in open source. Closed-source software vendors like Microsoft and VMware dominated the enterprise computing market. On the desktop Linux front, you were lucky if you could get your Linux PC to connect to a wireless network, let alone actually use it do work.
Fast forward to January 2017, however, and open source software is everywhere. More than two-thirds of companies are contributing to open source. Open source technologies like OpenStack, Docker and KVM are being used to build the next generation of infrastructure. And it has been years since I have had to fight with Xorg.conf or ndiswrapper in order to make Linux work on my PC.
Open Source's Top Challenges
Yet for all that the open source community has achieved, a new set of challenges has arisen. It includes:
- Cloud computing. Virtually everything is migrating to the cloud, and cloud computing is projected to continue growing at a compound annual growth rate of 19.4 percent for the next several years. That's good news for open source technologies that power the cloud, like OpenStack. But it's bad news for people who believe that the primary purpose of open source (or free software) should be to free users. Even when clouds are powered by open source code, cloud computing's architecture denies users many of the freedoms they would otherwise gain by using open source software (as Richard Stallman keenly points out).
- The Internet of Things (IoT). IoT presents challenges for open source that are similar to the cloud. Many IoT devices, like smart thermostats, are powered in part by open source technologies. But that doesn't mean much to users, who usually have little ability to modify the code running on the devices -- which tend to be undocumented, to lack interfaces that facilitate modification and to depend on proprietary components.
- Apple. The open source community has won its long war against Microsoft. Redmond declared its "love" for Linux and made many open source-friendly moves in recent years. But that other major consumer computing company -- Apple -- remains considerably less in love with open source (which is ironic, given that macOS is built in part on open code derived from BSD). Sure, Apple publishes some open source code. But most of Apple's products and platforms are super-proprietary and closed. (Case in point: Facetime, which is so proprietary you can't talk to people with non-Apple devices.) As long as Apple looms as a highly successful closed-source software company, open source will face stiff competition in the consumer market.
- Docker. Docker containers, which provide an innovative way to isolate applications and build next-generation infrastructure, are the hottest open source story of the moment. But Docker comes with a downside for the open source community. Concern about open standards for containers helped to drive talk of forking Docker several months ago. That never officially happened, but Red Hat launched a competing container framework called OCID. Red Hat swears OCID is not a Docker fork, but it kind of looks like one. All of this competition in the container ecosystem suggests that the spirit of collaboration that has traditionally undergirded open source projects is breaking down in the container world -- and that forks and rumors of forks could damage Docker's momentum.
- Corporate control. In elder days, most open source code was written by volunteers. Today, the vast majority of code contributions to projects like Linux and OpenStack come from programmers paid by companies like Red Hat and Intel. There's nothing wrong with this; the fact that companies are investing so much money in open source development is a good thing. But this change does reflect a much higher degree of corporate control over open source code. That leads to tensions that the open source community must contend with -- such as the kerfuffle last January about the Linux Foundation's board of directors giving too much control to companies at the expense of individuals.
There is no doubt that open source software will continue to thrive in this new year. But as open source reaches new frontiers, the open source landscape is changing. The open source community must adapt with it.