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July 7, 2017

Why we’re all in open source now

For a long time, even an open source advocate might have written a passionate plea about it from a Windows operating system. Most PCs and laptops were the domain of Microsoft, whose then-CEO Steve Ballmer once compared open source to cancer. Those days are long gone, as the company’s recent OpenDev event (tagline: “See what’s possible with open source in the cloud”) attests.

Open source has gone mainstream enough to power everything from the UK taxpayer system to breathalyzers and the New York Stock Exchange. And today, chances are good that you’re reading this on an Android device; Google’s open-source operating system now covers 86.8% of the market.

Open source is everywhere, thanks in large part to Linux — the kernel and various open-source components are now widely found in embedded systems. The car industry is a good example of why it makes sense: the most advanced part of your vehicle today just may be the onboard computer. These Linux-embedded dashboard devices offer voice recognition, mapping, text messages, climate control, collision sensors, entertainment systems and more. As they become ever more sophisticated, manufacturers need to keep costs from spiraling too high and retain control over the software architecture. With open source, they can choose from multiple vendors at every level — and still maintain direct control of the system, something not possible with proprietary software. By 2020, Linux is expected to be the leader in the market with 53.7 million devices on the road.

This sounds great for major automakers, but what about the small business owner? Take, for example, a local bakery. The owner, Carl, builds a website using the open source content management system on WordPress. He posts recipes and store hours, but he also built a shopping cart to drive online sales. He can take orders online from a wider customer base than passersby. He then extends the system with CiviCRM to remind previous customers of upcoming holidays, family anniversaries as well as discounts and specials. He also runs logistics from the platform by integrating WordPress with open source Odoo, an all-in-one management software which provides inventory, accounting and point-of-sales applications for the shop. He’s up and running in a few weeks at a low cost — freed up to invest in building the best service offering and marketing it.


There are a number of advantages to Carl by going this route: let’s say he wants to start shipping macaroons to Canada so he needs to support a second currency in the shopping cart. With open source, he can tap an immense pool of programmers who can add features. Chances are good that instead of having to find an individual developer or a company, someone has already done it and he can simply add it as a plug-in. With proprietary software, instead of having access to multiple sources for this feature, he’d have to hope that the company he bought it from was interested in developing it, had already developed it and would charge him a reasonable amount to use it.


Many people approaching open source wonder that if no one is “in charge,” how can you ensure that the software or project doesn’t die or become obsolete. Again, it’s largely a numbers game. Open source projects with large followings tend to survive the shifts in ownership of the companies or major contributors behind them. One example of this is SugarCRM, which stopped updating the community version of its sales-force automation, marketing campaigns, customer support and collaboration software in 2013. However, because the original code was released under GPL, its development effort had already been taken over by vTiger in 2004; the decision to not update the community version by SugarCRM led to two more forks (both still under active development) meaning that users of the CRM now have even more vendors to choose from.


It might sound as if anyone can bring anything they want to a project — picture a stadium-size jumble sale — but in reality, open source projects are buttressed by various kinds of technical leadership. WordPress is a clear example of how this works: there are technical leaders selected among the most active contributors who make decisions about priorities, features, issues to fix, upcoming releases etc. When these folks find themselves at an impasse, the creator Matt Mullenweg steps in as “benevolent dictator.” That said, o pen source isn’t a one-size fits all solution. There are seven (at least!) models behind successful open-source projects. In the next post, we’ll take a look into them.