Four Big Ideas About Open Source

Four Big Ideas About Open Source. By tim

In my O'Reilly Radar Executive Briefing next week at OSCON, I'm focusing on four big ideas about open source:

  1. The architecture of participation beyond software. Software development was the canary in the coalmine, one of the first areas to show the power of self-organizing systems leveraging the power of the internet to transform markets. But it didn't stop there. What we're now calling Web 2.0 is a direct outgrowth of the core principles that made open source software successful, but in my opinion, many of the projects and companies that make up the Web 2.0 movement have gone far beyond open source in their understanding of how to build systems that leverage what I call the architecture of participation.
  2. Asymmetric Competition. One of the most powerful things about open source is its potential to reset the rules of the game, to compete in a way that undercuts all of the advantages of incumbent players. Yet what we see in open source is that the leading companies have in many ways abandoned this advantage, becoming increasingly like the companies with which they compete. I have no concerns about the ultimate health of the open source development model or the vibrant creativity of the open source community, but I do question whether open source companies really grasp the implications of the new model. I think that if they did, they'd be Web 2.0 companies.
  3. How Software As a Service Changes The Points of Business Leverage. Operations and scalability lead to powerful cost advantages; increasing returns from network effects lead to new kinds of lock-in. The net effect is that even when running open source software, vendors will have lock-in opportunities just as powerful as those from the previous generation of proprietary software.
  4. Open Data. One day soon, tomorrow's Richard Stallman will wake up and realize that all the software distributed in the world is free and open source, but that he still has no control to improve or change the computer tools that he relies on every day. They are services backed by collective databases too large (and controlled by their service providers) to be easily modified. Even data portability initiatives such as those starting today merely scratch the surface, because taking your own data out of the pool may let you move it somewhere else, but much of its value depends on its original context, now lost.

In short, you can see that I believe that there are serious challenges to the open source model. For all its success (and that success has been world-changing), it's important not to get complacent. The world is changing under our feet! The pendulum always swings between open and proprietary, and despite the apparent progress of open source and open standards, right now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

I have always felt most passionate in preaching to the open source community. It is one that I love and esteem most highly. But it is also one that is in great danger of increasing irrelevance, because some of the premises on which it has based its thinking are wrong. I've always had a perspective a bit at variance from those of other open source advocates, and as the future unfolds, I continue to feel that that perspective is essential for open source strategists to understand and embrace.

(For a succinct recap of the evolution of that perspective, see my 1998 essay, Hardware, Software and Infoware, my 2003 essay, The Open Source Paradigm Shift, and my 2004 essay, What is Web 2.0? Also, see my previous entry about the Radar Open Source briefing session.  [O'Reilly Radar]

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