Christine Hall, 2019

Last modified by ChristineHall on 2019/03/03 07:00

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Thoughts on the State of Open Source

Is open source under threat? Of course it is. It always has been and it always will be. Why should open source be any different from anything else on the planet? Everything is always under threat. This is especially true of concepts and ideas, which essentially is what open source is, because concepts and ideas are much too easily modified.

It can be tempting, and pressure can be brought to bear, to make changes to how concepts such as open source are defined. But just because pressure from some open source developers is currently very much in the news doesn't mean that open source is particularly "under threat." MongoDB attempting to convince Open Source Initiative to either officially redefine open source or to shoehorn a license into open source approval, isn't much of a threat, it's pretty much business as usual. 

It's not a threat primarily because of OSI's commitment to its mandate to be the maintainer and defender of the Open Source Definition and to the important role of deciding whether licenses fits that definition.

We are fortunate that OSI, a key organization in the open source ecosphere, has maintained its integrity and independence while it continues to resist pressure from powerful and resourceful organizations who would be happy to decide what open source becomes going forward and whose only metric for measuring the worth of open source is dollars and cents. Good for OSI. Not all open source organizations have resisted the temptation to be bought by the Fortune 500 consortium.

As members, it's up to us to assure that the integrity and independence of OSI continues to be maintained.

OSI is and should be business agnostic and not antagonistic to business. Open source is not a business model; it's a software license.

The relationship between the open source community and industrial users is complex, however.

There's no denying that big business is important to open source. These days corporate users represent what is by far the largest set of users, developers, and maintainers of software released under open source licenses. This is true because the value of sharing resources, the basic premise behind open source, has proved to be a valuable asset for corporations to leverage. This has led to a turnaround by the corporate world that many of us could not have foreseen 20 years ago, and the open source development model has become more valuable to the enterprise than enterprise adoption has been to open source.

While we should continue to support and encourage business adoption of open source software, we should also be aware that the wholesale adoption of open source by the enterprise has had unintended negative consequences on the open source community that need to be addressed. A key consequence has been that lowly consumers of software, home users if you will (or what the press used to call "enthusiasts"), now represents a shrinking part of a community that now seems to be dominated by people who earn their living in IT. 

This is not good. If not for so-called enthusiasts there would never have been a free software movement, Linux would have never gained traction, and OSI likely would not exist.

A large portion of this drop is due to the overwhelming success of computer tech as a driving economic force. Software development houses now employ millions of people,  and many people's first exposure to open source is job related. Also, the technology underpinning consumer computers, from smart phones to desktops, no longer requires users to learn much about computers in order to effectively use them, and home users no longer need to directly purchase the software they use. Most devices come with much of the software they need preinstalled, and what additional software they need is either readily available as proprietary freeware from vendor supplied app stores or as free, or practically free, SaaS.

These shrinking numbers have led to a situation where open source advocates on the consumer level are not being well represented by open source organizations. The average computer user only has a vague awareness of open source software, if they have any awareness at all. This is disturbing, because the free software movement and open source were conceived under the notion that all computer users should have free access to software and that the software on their machines should belong to them. It does no good to have software available to users who do not know that it is there. 

This is an area where I would especially like to see OSI get more involved.  Everyone is using computers these days, from cell phones to traditional desktops, usually with little to no awareness about the source of the apps they download and install. I would like to see OSI looking for opportunities to be of service to these everyday computer users.

I don't have any preconceived solutions that may or may not work. I can only offer a clear understanding of some of the problems we are facing. I have some ideas, mainly centered around opening up educational channels to increase awareness of open source software and its importance. If elected to the board I will seek counsel from the people at OSI whom I already know (and others whom I will meet) to attempt to find practical ways for OSI to better serve garden variety computer users.

About Me

I bring to the table about twenty years experience as an open source user and advocate. I also have 47 years experience as a journalist, with the last least ten years spent exclusively writing about open source and what I've generally come to call "free tech." This includes ten years spent publishing a website I created, FOSS Force, which covers free and open source software exclusively, including desktop Linux, for an audience that mainly consisted of Linux and open source enthusiasts and advocates. This site has been on sabbatical for the last 1 1/2 years, but is in the process of being revised.

For the last three years or so, I've been employed as a full time journalist writing for two online tech news sites targeting the enterprise ecosystem. At Data Center Knowledge, my beat is specifically "Open Source" (which includes so-called "open source hardware"). At IT Pro Today, my assigned beat includes Linux, containers, server virtualization, HCI, and HPC, which are all areas dominated by open source.


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