Is proprietary software dead? Maybe not entirely, but pretty soon, its place in the enterprise will be greatly diminished due to the rapid adoption of innovative open source alternatives. While proprietary tools often boast small, yet stable, customer bases, open source software can claim passionate, loyal followings that only keep growing.
Although open source has always had a strong support system, free code was almost synonymous with pirating at one point. In fact, back in 1976, Bill Gates wrote his “Open Letter to Hobbyists,” which argued that if developers get ahold of software without paying for it, there’s no way to encourage the next generation to create high quality products as they will never reap the financial benefits.
While his argument was convincing at the time, it has been largely disproven today. Open source software is growing exponentially in popularity — so much so that it is threatening to kill proprietary software by 2020. Or maybe even before. So, what contributed to open source’s strong hold on developers? Let’s start from the beginning.
Open Source Growth and Adoption
Open source has been slowly taking hold for decades, but its pivotal moment came in 1991 with the release of Linux Kernel, which created the first free operating system. Shortly thereafter, Eric S. Raymond wrote the Cathedral and the Bazaar, which proposed a coding economy based on community, sharing, and building. He argued that by having code open to the public, it will be less prone to bugs as everyone will have the opportunity to correct flaws.
Netscape released Netscape Communicator in 1997 as an open source Internet suite, thereby establishing open source as a mainstream movement. As the years have gone on, an increasing number of high quality, diverse open source offerings have become available, some of the most popular of which are the ELK Stack logging platform, the Linux operating system, and the Apache HTTP Server.
The Appeal of Open Source
As I mentioned, open source software is backed by a strong and devoted community. But what has made this community so eager to support open source projects? Open source is built by developers, for developers. That’s why people who participate and use tools within the community feel close to those who created it as well as the tools themselves.
Other than the emotional connection, the projects are free, of high quality, and can be constantly perfected due to their public nature. Because it is community-driven, projects only advance as a result of being highly usable. Developers are able to build on top of open source offerings, making the projects more diverse, useful, and valuable.
Furthermore, the loyalty to open source is largely ingrained in developer culture. Developers may become familiar with specific tools as students, often times even contributing to their code. They then move on and advance in their career, taking the tools they know with them.
In contrast, proprietary tools are expensive and lack options for customization. If a new feature is needed, developers are dependant on the company that created the tool to recognize the need and release a new update. Generally speaking, such updates take quite a bit of time and lack the beloved transparency found within open source.
Uniqueness of the Open Source Market
Overall, the open source movement entails many unique components. One such component is its popularity in the software field. Though a variety of great open source hardware exists, the trend has really gained momentum within the context of software.
The reason for this is software’s ease of delivery. Open source software is simply downloaded whereas hardware must be manufactured. The components needed are classically difficult to come by and expensive to ship. Despite all these issues, open source hardware is increasing in popularity, developing a strong following similar to its counterpart in software.
In addition to open source’s unique dominance in software, another interesting aspect in open source is the fact that commercial companies are eager to get in on the action. Some prominent examples include Google’s Kubernetes and Elastic’s Elasticsearch.
So, why would a company as large as Google want to jump on the open source bandwagon? The value for commercial companies is the ability to take part in educating the open source community while playing a profound role in a flourishing grassroots movement. By leaving their mark in the open source world, large companies can play an active role in the innovation taking place, earning points among a strong segment of their market.
However, what’s interesting to note is many of these companies lose prominence next to their open source offering. While this can’t be said for Google, Elastic’s Elasticsearch is a prime example. Elastic, the commercial company, has little recognition beyond the main products it produces, Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana (collectively deemed the ELK Stack). The same cannot be said in the majority of other industries in which users remember the brand as well as the product itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it only reconfirms the fact that the open source market is so powerful that it is a brand in and of itself.
Proprietary tools have had a successful run, but it is no match for the vibrant culture that is encouraged in the open source world. The quality of the products being produced and the inclusiveness of the community makes it a force to be reckoned with in modern IT departments. In essence, the future is in open source, and proprietary will have to either get on board or be left in the dust.