The difference a few years makes to open source

Open source has evolved dramatically in the past few years, as IT and business strategists have rushed to embrace it.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

For those new to open source, whether on the business or development side, it's hard to appreciate just how far the movement has come in the past few years.

In 1998, when I had my first taste of open-source software through my company's investment in Cobalt Networks, virtually no one knew what open source was, including now-common projects like Linux. Things were a little better in 2000, when I joined a Linux start-up (Lineo), but I spent much of my time working with prospective customers to ease their concerns over open-source licenses like the GPL.

The world is open source's oyster.

By 2004, when a group of friends and I founded the Open Source Business Conference, there was significant, growing awareness of open source, but its adoption was still stymied by Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, much of it fomented by Microsoft (Steve Ballmer in 2001: "Linux is a cancer") and the SCO Group (lawsuit over the provenance of Linux code in 2003).

Today, SCO Group, once a high-flier, is struggling for existence. Meanwhile, Microsoft has committed another $100,000 to Apache Software Foundation, has started its own open-source foundation, and has embedded significant bits of open-source code within its proprietary programs, among other things.

Linux, for its part, struggled to get noticed in data centers back in 2003. It has since become essential, mission-critical infrastructure across the Global 2000 ranking of public companies

We've come a long way.

This progress reflects itself in the job market, where Linux-related jobs have seen a 6 percent rise in 2009 alone, while Windows-related jobs have plunged by 8 percent, according to data from Dice.com.

But it's also evident in enterprises' willingness--even eagerness--to discuss open-source adoption plans. Virgin America CIO Ravi Simhambhatla tells The Register that his need to do more with less drove the company to adopt open source and suggests that the open-source philosophy is a positive, disruptive force:

Our company doesn't need just another IT team, the more and more we get entrenched in the...way of doing things the less and less room we will make for ourselves to be innovative.

In 2004, when I was trying to find an IT executive to speak at OSBC, it was a lost cause. No one wanted to paint a legal bull's-eye on themselves for SCO or Microsoft. Today, company executives line up to talk up how they're differentiating through open source.

Open source has "arrived," and the signs are everywhere, from the U.S. Defense Department's efforts to boost its open-source adoption further to patent-rich Qualcomm's foray into open source.

Open source is no longer a question of "why" but rather one of "how." It's the way the industry does business, and the way it does development.

No, not everyone in the industry, all of the time. But for those of us who have been involved in open source for even the past five years, it's amazing to see how much things have changed, which suggests they'll evolve even further.

For some within the open-source world, this is unwelcome news. They defined themselves as freedom fighters, battling the forces of proprietary darkness. And as far as good-and-evil metaphors work in technology, they were.

But as that world embraces open source, they're largely left bereft of bogeymen, like old soldiers still struggling against an unseen enemy.

Winning can be a bit disorienting.

All the same, it's time to move on. There are no more vampires to slay, but simply further open-source education to undertake. Enterprises need open source now, more than ever, and they're adopting it now, more than ever.

What a long, strange trip it's been.