The success of open source is undeniable. Just about any website you visit today is running on some kind of open source software. Your shiny new Mac is running FreeBSD under its beautiful surface. Google uses open source software. So does Facebook. Yet if you mention open source software to most people, they probably will give you a blank look. Few non-technies know what it is, even though they use it countless times everyday.
So: Can open source developers create software that directly benefit people, instead of wait for either implementers or the likes of Apple, Google, not to mention Microsoft and Oracle, to do it with our code?
If you answer “No,” then please stop reading this post – it’s not for you.
If you answer “Yes,” like we did, then here are some of my thoughts on how we can do it. Please tell me what you think.
Let’s Do Better than Free,
Getting software for free may have been a novelty once, before Google showed up. Today you can get most of the software you need for free, as in “free beer” (to use a favorite open source expression), so we have to go beyond just making software cheaper. We have to make better software.
Stop Obsessing about Open Source,
Unfortunately, though, too many open source developers are still obsessed about open source itself, rather than about how to create a better product. There are endless debates of “I’m more open source than you,” whether this or that license is “really open source” (even when they are both Open Source Initiative licenses), and a lot more that I won’t bore you with. Many commercial open source software companies are not immune either. Instead of focusing on creating better software, they are endlessly speculating about various “open source business models.”
Forget it. Nobody knows or cares about this stuff. Well, maybe not “nobody” — just the Real People who want to use great software to solve their everyday problems.
and Focus on Creating Software for Real People.
Surely some People are Real to you. Perhaps they are people around you that you care about. Or perhaps they are the billions of people who have to go through their day without access to some basic necessities of life — clean water, reliable power, and sanitation to name a few.
We are on the cusp of a great technological shift, perhaps on par with the rise of the World Wide Web itself. Imagine a world of small, mobile devices accessing a global computing cloud. What can these technologies do for the Real People you care about?
Stop Trying to Reinvent Commercial Software
With both open source developers and commercial open source companies, I see a tendency to try to create open source “knock offs” of existing commercial software. For individual open source developers, this might be a “Gee, let me see if I can do this” kind of thing. That’s ok — once or twice. But I hope you’ll eventually grow out of it and do something more creative.
For commercial companies, this is just a bad idea. Michael Dell once said something like this in Direct from Dell: “Focus on your competition, and you’re looking at your industry’s past. Focus on your customers, and you’re looking at your industry’s future.”
and Think about How Open Source Can Really Make a Difference
And now, the hard part: How does open source really make a difference? We give it away for free … but so do Google and Facebook, so forget that one. We have a community of enthusiasts around our product … but so do Salesforce, Facebook, and Apple, so a community of cheering fans is not enough.
Perhaps by releasing our source code, we can get a whole community of developers to come together and innovate with us? If you had our source code, would you be able to help make our software better? Would you be able to create high-quality software with our code, so that together we can help more people? And collectively, would this community of developers built around free (as in “free speech”) source code create better software than those communities of developers built around proprietary vendors, such as Apple, Facebook, and Salesforce?
History has not returned its verdict yet. Open source has some great success stories here, but as a whole, the past five years of technology have been defined by companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Salesforce, and Twitter.
Can open source do better? I suppose that depends ultimately on you…