OSCON 2014: Is Open Source Dead?

After visiting OSCON this year, I have to ask myself: is open source dead?

I don’t mean open source software. Software published under licenses approved by the OSI is booming. What I mean is the ideal of open source software, that people would get together to build collaborative applications that would be given away for free.

I’ve never been a fan of software in an of itself. I’ve always looked toward software for what it can allow me to do. I don’t care about spreadsheets unless they help me manage my company. I don’t care about word processors beyond their ability to allow me to express my thoughts. Even games can be judged on how well they allow me to escape into them. So I don’t see “software” as a product – it’s the thing that helps me make the product.

It seems that open source applications have all but disappeared. What’s doing very well are open source libraries and languages that allow people to build proprietary products. Take a look at the biggest sponsors of OSCON. There’s Bluehost, a hosting provider “built on open source technologies”. There’s Paypal, “using open source foundations in their technology stacks”. The list continues: Citrix, Google, HP, Github, Microsoft and Rackspace. Of all of those, only Github strikes me as an open source company. The others are using open source technologies but to build closed products. The “open” has come to mean “open protocols” more than “open source”.

Is this a bad thing? I really don’t know.

If you look at the sponsor page, you’ll see “We’re Hiring” banners next to the names of many of the companies. Being fluent in open source technologies is a good way to get a job, and seems to be the primary reason many of the companies were there in the first place.

The only large truly open source company I know of, Red Hat, was there, but in a little bitty booth. There are still a lot of “open core” companies represented: those companies that provide a feature limited version of their products under an open source license but charge for the full featured one. While I think this is a bad thing, they seem to be doing well.

Is it because no one cares anymore? This saddens me.

There seems to be a lack of concern about the lock-in that comes with proprietary software, even more so than in years past. There is a huge gold rush to provide software as a service (SaaS) offerings, but no one is caring about security or portability. A lot of the business models of these SaaS companies directly involves analytics of their users. Was anyone in the tech world really surprised when it was revealed that Facebook was experimenting on its user base? Yet people seem to be in a rush to turn over their most important information to third parties. Even at OSCON, the premier open source conference, most of the people wandered around with Macbooks and iPhones.

So, open source is really succeeding in core technologies such as libraries and languages but fails at the end user application level. I think part of it is the lack of a good business model. People are more than willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for software licenses but are loathe to pay for an open source support contract. I also think that it fails when it comes to usability. Without the business model, there just aren’t the resources available to make a lot of the software accessible to the casual technical user and much less to the Muggles. Heck, even Apple, which did such a good job with Time Machine, has pretty much moved backup from the user space to iCloud.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on open source. I still use a Linux Mint desktop and an Android phone running OmniROM. Almost all of the software I use is open source, but even I have to admit that in many cases the stuff I use isn’t ready for the basic user. But I may have to rethink my relationship to the term “open source”.

This post may sound like I’m really down, but I’m not. I’m actually kind of upbeat overall. And I really enjoyed the short amount of time I spent at OSCON. While not as open source-y as I might like, this is one of the few times a year I can be assured of running into a lot of cool people I’ve met over the years. When I arrived at the exhibit hall, I made a beeline for the unfashionable booths in the back and toward the left known as the “Nonprofit Pavilion” or as I like to call it, the “Geek Ghetto”. It’s pretty cool that some commercial shows like this offer free booths, but one must realize that they don’t include things like carpet padding, power or Internet access. I know a couple of projects that got booths next to each other so they could share.

The first booth I stopped at was the Software Freedom Conservancy booth where I got to see Bradley Kuhn and Karen Sandler for the first time in over a year, and I got to meet Marc Delisle, the maintainer of phpMyAdmin. They seem to be doing well and the list of Conservancy projects keeps growing. While I was there, open source guru Stormy Peters stopped by, as well as Deb Nicholson from the Open Invention Network.

I also was happy to see the LibreOffice booth. That is one project that really does try to do a fully open source application and they seem to be succeeding (I use it every day). Back when I was a Mac user I started using Keynote and Pages until I realized that the stuff I was creating was going to be tied to Apple forever. To my knowledge none of the Microsoft Office or iWork stuff support an open format, but maybe that will change now that the UK government has formally adopted ODF as their standard.

While interest in open source applications is waning, it is fun to see the open source spirit is still alive in projects other than software. I met Kevin from Free Geek, a non-profit that started in Portland but has grown to over ten other cities. Free Geek recycles technology and provides training for a variety of disciplines including computer hardware, software and even lock picking (who knows when you’ll get locked out of the server closet).

Something I don’t believe they had at OSCON last time was an “open hardware” section. I got to play with a beagleboard which is used by Prof. Thomas Bewley in his robotics classes as UCSD. I’m kind of jealous at all the new toys college students get to play with these days, for credit even.

One project is to create a balancing, two-wheeled robot. The one I played with was managed with a radio controller, and it was quite robust, even when I purposely drove it into other things (people, other robots).

On the opposite corner of the hall from the Geek Ghetto were the booths of some of the smaller open source projects with more commercial backing. The Red Hat booth was over there, and it was nice to run into Greg DeKoenigsberg at the Anisible booth. I met Greg when he was at Red Hat and it was also nice to see a local face (he’s nearby in Durham). Anisible seems to be a pretty cool project and I loved the tweet from an emphatic user who said “If a vegan, Crossfit, Anisible enthusiast meets you, what do they talk about first?”.

Speaking of meeting people, I got to chat with Erica Brescia over at the Bitnami booth, and later on ran into Jono Bacon and Stephen Walli. We ended up at Baileys along with Chris Aniszczyk from Twitter and some others, but as they say, what happens in Portland stays in Portland, so no pictures.

Plus, you really, really don’t want to know about that evening’s particular discussion. Ah, good times.

One thought on “OSCON 2014: Is Open Source Dead?

  1. A lot of those companies are still contributing towards open source products, they’re just not usually marketing them as products.

    Take Rackspace — they’re one of the founders of OpenStack (http://www.openstack.org/). Sure, they use it internally, and likely have lots of custom code on their internal systems, but it’s a real free software product that lots of other companies are using.

    Google is a harder argument, since they mostly do release tools and frameworks and not products, but you wouldn’t have your phone’s custom ROM if they weren’t promptly releasing Android source. And some of their open source tools have as much polish and quality as some products I’ve seen, like the Dart and Go languages.

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