The new draw of open source: innovation

Open source isn't just alternative; for cutting-edge tech, it's the only game in town

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Recent observations at OSCON has demonstrated that open source can never be thought of as an also-ran again, as new technologies are now being created that show open source is now a way to innovate.

This is not, I have to say, my idea. During yesterday's opening session at OSCON, Jay Lyman, Senior Analyst at The 451 Group, Twittered an interesting observation: "Overwhelming message @ Oscon so far is open source now driven mostly by innovation."

A little background at this stage: I was sitting near the front, between my good friends Tarus Balog (OpenNMS) and Stephen Walli (Outercurve Foundation), and the level of smart-assery was extremely high. (To give you an idea, Steve Holden, Director of the Python Software Foundation turned around to shush us at one point. But only once.) So when I saw Lyman's comment, I snapped off 'What else would it be driven by?"

To me, Lyman's comment was akin to saying the sky was blue. Of course there was innovation in open source, we see it all the time.

I wasn't really upset, but I was still mildly irked by Gianugo Rabellino's part of the opening session, where he (wearing his Senior Director of Open Source Communities for Microsoft hat) highlighted separate customer needs for commercial and open source software, and highlighted Microsoft's approach to handle the needs of open source customers with open core and what they call an "open surface" model. Open surface is where the core of the software remains under a proprietary license but it can be accessed with all sort of nifty-keen open APIs, open add-ons, and the like. Walli and I just looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and started muttering: "open surface" is just the shared source message, repackaged.

(Pretty sure, by the way, the muttering was when Holden shushed us.)

Not to mention that Rabellino's positioning of "commercial" and "open source" software as somehow being on different ends of the software spectrum was a fallacy in and of itself. As Walli noted to me, you can certainly have commercial open source software--they are not mutually exclusive. But labeling software in such a manner softens the "proprietary" label and not-so subtly delivers the message that somehow you can't have commercial success with open source software.

So when I read Lyman's tweet, I figured he was slipping into market-speak, and needed a small slap to get his head back in the game.

It turns out I should have slapped myself a bit.

Lyman wasn't writing about the small-scale innovation that happens in open source; he was talking about the broader motivations of what people turn to open source, as evidence by his next reply to me: "Cost and flexibility when we asked customers [two years] ago" and then "but [performance], reliability, [and] innovation have grown as drivers/rewards."

He explained it more when I caught up with him later out in the hall and clarified to him that I had just been giving him a hard time. When 451 and other analysts researched why customers were going to open source, it was for all the reasons he listed above: cost, flexibility, performance, and reliability--but hardly ever for anything new. Open source software was often seen as an equivalent or alternative to some pre-existing proprietary software.

But now, Lyman said, there are things in open source software that you cannot get anywhere else. Just look, he said, at all of the stuff going on with big data and software as a service. In the non-relational database sector alone, there are no proprietary equivalents to these creations--it's all open source.

And that's what Lyman sees coming out of OSCON and the broader open source community, and if you put yourself in the right mindset, this kind of innovation is easier to spot than ever. Open source isn't "just" the alternative anymore, it's becoming the mainstream technology in a lot of areas.

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