The power of open source

Open, collaborative software development is nothing new. Perhaps the most emblematic case of this model, Linux, began to be developed in an unpretentious way in the early 1990s by a Finnish student named Linus Torvalds. According to his autobiography (Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary) Linux was derived from a personal project of Linus, which became public in mid-1991.

At the time, the developer made a post on a popular forum from the early days of the internet, Usenet, telling the community about the development and asking for collaboration in the form of criticism and suggestions. In the years that followed, with the voluntary engagement of thousands of developers, Linux would become one of the world’s leading operating systems, completely free and present on millions of devices.

For a long time, the ecosystem of open source solutions, or open source, was seen as enemy number one of private software companies. In 2001, Microsoft CEO at the time, Steve Ballmer, referred to Linux as a cancer to be fought, while Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates harshly criticized the GPL (General Public License), a free software license released in 1989 and conceived by another icon of the open source world, Richard Matthew Stallman. Even today, the GPL regulates the use of most of the free software developed and published in the world. But this long fight led prominently by Microsoft seems to have come to an end. As the saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, join them”.

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In 2021, the world couldn’t be more different than it was in the early 1990s for software development. These days, it’s virtually impossible to find a technology company that doesn’t use, develop, or support open source initiatives. Steve Ballmer himself, now former CEO of Microsoft, retracted his comments about Linux, while Microsoft waved more openly to innovations coming from this community. The reasons for this phenomenon are many, but I understand that they can be summarized in three characteristics of contemporary open source development: abundance of capital, modularity and exponentiality of innovation, with the first being attracted by the following.

From the point of view of capital, the days when open source technologies were fully developed with volunteer work are gone. Although unpaid developers play a key role in the success of projects, the flood of capital provided by big techs and venture capital funds through startups has catapulted open source development to another level. Today it is increasingly common for a technology company to create some software or component to solve an internal problem and open the solution to the community, often placing itself as the main maintainer. And that’s just one of the many ways tech companies have engaged with open source.

This abundance of capital is justified by the combination of two other characteristics: modularity and exponentiality. The importance of the former is linked to a growing need for integration and customization at scale. The digital environments of large companies have become incredibly complex for closed and vertical solutions, and incredibly expensive for fully customized solutions. In this context, the introduction of open source as part of the technological stack of large companies, or a component of proprietary software or services, can bring solutions that are much more adhering to the new reality.

Additionally, collaborative development has set a pace of technological innovation never seen before. Today we have thousands of developers, enthusiasts and full-time employees pushing the technological frontier. And thanks to the aforementioned ability to modularize most of these technologies at all stages of development, the pace becomes exponential, as innovations are combined to deliver ever greater value and innovations are stacked to deliver value ever faster.

All this does not mean that proprietary software development is over, quite the opposite. It has matured, changed and in some ways merged with open source development. The future is hybrid. Whether as an end user, supporter or developer, your business will certainly be impacted by this way of building and consuming software.

*Article produced by a columnist exclusively for Kenyannews. The text may contain opinions and analyzes that do not necessarily reflect Kenyannews’s view on the matter.

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