A bountiful year for open source

It is now just over 12 years since seven people sat down in a conference room in Silicon Valley to fix what they saw as the marketing problem with the words "free software." Most people thought that the word "free" meant only that no one had to pay. It seemed they didn't have an attention span long enough to try to grok what Richard Stallman was saying when he kept repeating, "'free,' as in speech."

After considering dozens of combinations, Christine Peterson hit upon "open source," and the phrase has grown to represent a section of the software marketplace big enough to merit its own end-of-the-year roundup.

[ InfoWorld's Bossie Awards recognize the best open source software of the year: Best open source applications | Best open source application development software | Best open source platforms and middleware | Best open source networking software. ]

If anything, rounding up the news about open source is impossible these days because there's just so much of it. Still, gross generalizations are easy to make as long as everyone realizes they're wrong as often as they're right. There are hundreds of thousands of projects floating about the Web, and any statement is probably correct for some subset, however small.

There's little doubt that open source projects are flourishing, at leasta as measured by their sheer numbers. There are 1.49 million projects at GitHub. SourceForge tallies more than 2 million downloads a day.

Code is everywhere, and it is more and more likely to be open source from the bottom to the top of the stack. Ruby, Python, Perl, JavaScript, and PHP dominate the list of top languages at GitHub. This code, in turn, runs on open source libraries that sit on Linux. Although proprietary coding tools and extensions continue to proliferate, the core is increasingly fully open source.

This domination is pushing into other areas. Open source content management systems like web.py, phpBB, CakePHP, Lift, Drupal, Joomla, and probably hundreds of other open source CMS frameworks are packaging up most of the information you read today. It is rare to find a website that depends on just Apache to deliver the content.

Scientists and academics are pushing open source software even further. Mathematicians are exploring bundling their equations in Sage notebooks, and biologists seem to love Python. Moodle is the dominant courseware tool. The list from the world of research is endless, especially since it's now common for colleagues to expect open source code and data to accompany the text.

There's even more good news on the business side. Champagne corks were popping as open source advocates everywhere celebrated the predictions that Red Hat -- one of the original believers in openness -- should clear $1 billion in revenue for the year if IT departments keep spending at the current rate. This milestone is all the more noteworthy because MySQL was earning much less when Sun paid $1 billion for it. At current stock prices, Red Hat is worth more than $9 billion.

Some cynics, though, are skeptical about whether $1 billion truly measures the success of the open source ideals. In a sense, every purchase of a server license represents someone who did not download, share, compile, or remix the source code. While true open source licenses are a tradition at Red Hat, the product page is set up to let people "buy" licenses that are counted by the number of "sockets," another way of measuring CPU power.

Red Hat continues to push service, custom engineering, training, and completely open versions such as Fedora and CentOS, but many parts of it seem much closer to a big business than a hippie commune. Its success illustrates how open source is not just a path for DIY enthusiasts or profit-hating communitarians.

Champagne corks were also popping over Oracle's purchase of Sun, although not in the open source community where many view the takeover with fear. While open source advocates are happy to celebrate Red Hat's success as proof that business and open source can coexist, everyone seems leery that Oracle will try to bring more business savvy to Sun's open source assets.

As Sun's open source projects were falling into Oracle's hands, the MySQL community pondered a bleak future. Now the angst in the Java community has spilled into the spotlight.

The company clearly sees many of the assets it inherited with the hardware business as opportunities to bring in more revenues. OpenOffice.org, once a flagship in the open source armada, is now sold as Oracle Open Office for $49.95.

Still, not everyone is sad. Some see this devotion to revenue as long overdue. Scott McNealy himself said that perhaps he tried too hard to please the community that demanded everything for free. Some are even celebrating Oracle's new prices as a chance to raise money to support the open source core.

Oracle is certainly not trying to shut the door on open source. Ed Screven, the chief architect, said Oracle would continue to enhance the community version of MySQL, while making clear there would be some "value add" for those who paid for the Enterprise version. Oracle also continues to enhance Java, rolling out JDK 7 and a number of other open source projects.

If anything, Oracle is helping the old Sun open source projects catch up with the dominant revenue model in the business. It is now common to find "community versions" and "enterprise versions" as dueling options on comparison charts. Whereas early open source advocates suggested that open source companies could pay the bills by distributing the same features to both products and getting people to pay for support and training, more and more products are withholding some secret sauce. This doesn't mean the community version suffers, but it is increasingly being used as a gateway drug to get the programmers addicted to the enterprise version.

Not all marquee projects are following this direction. Google's Eric Schmidt predicted that 2010 would be a big year for Android phones, and the handset manufacturers and carriers delivered on his promises. Phones with keyboards, phones without keyboards, big tablets, little tablets, cheap tablets, and expensive tablets all appeared sporting Android. Google distributes its code with the very generous BSD license, and the carriers are free to do with it what they will.

Oracle and Google, by the way, are fighting over how Android phones implement some features of Java. James Gosling, former Java leader at Sun, said, it is all about "ego, money, and power." Are the lawyers just clone troopers in the service of a Lord Vader, or is Ellison developing the business plan that Sun avoided as long as the server business supported the company?

This big legal battle isn't the only fight that makes people realize that the open source world is often pretty far from Richard Stallman's vision of a Jeffersonian democracy filled with gentleman scholars/inventors/farmers/writers who all knew how to use gcc. Although Google may not put any restrictions on its code, the carriers are adding secret layers and arranging for phones to freeze up if anyone tries to use Android's openness to recompile the OS. It's easy to be cynical about these restrictions, but they seem positively tame compared to the barbed wire encampments in Apple land, where nothing happens without a cryptographic signature from Steve Jobs.

The wide open marketplace, though, is encouraging a proliferation of formats. Many are wondering if the marketplace will prove to be so chaotic that no rational software developer will step into the Android world for fear of dealing with endless variations and combinations of versions. Or will the abundance and openness deliver so many options that everyone will willingly excuse the differences? Will the openness be a hope or a hindrance?

This is the major question lurking in the back of the programmers' minds as open source enters a new era where all of the optimism is shadowed by the cynical reality that open source and the licenses are now a big part of business. The rise and fall of Android, MySQL, Java, and their competitors depends heavily on what the licenses mean and don't mean. Sometimes the lawyers will make the call, and sometimes it will be the job of programmers and managers, but the debates about openness will be a crucial part of how these technologies succeed or fail.

Despite all of these big battles between armies, plenty of casual projects will still flourish with a simple recipe: open the code and share. In these cases, the debates over something being a hope or a hindrance never occur because all of the sharing is enjoyable for everyone. For most of the millions of projects and downloads, the ability to read the code is all that matters.

This article, "A bountiful year for open source," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in open source software at InfoWorld.com. Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Open Sources blog and Technology: Open Source newsletter.

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This story, "A bountiful year for open source" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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