Jun 05 2013

Has Open-Source Technology Grown Up?

The days of “open-source” being a dirty word could soon be a distant memory.

If open-source software and technology was a brand in its own right, it might borrow the popular 1968 tagline for Virginia Slims: You’ve come a long way, baby.

Open-source software development traces its roots back to February 1998 when a group at a strategy session in Palo Alto, Calif., adopted the open-source label in response to Netscape’s release of the source code to its once-dominant web browser, Netscape Navigator. This according to the history of the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit organization that determines the industry definition of open-source software and technology.

Born of the “free software” and hacker culture of the late 1990s, open-source software was seen as the Wild, Wild West by most major software companies. In 2007, Microsoft went on the offensive against open-source operating system Linux, demanding royalties and claiming patent violations.

By 2008, however, the company softened its stance on open-source software when it acquired a startup that utilized open-source code and required the company to contribute to the then-nascent Hadoop project by the Apache Foundation.

According to a 2008 InfoWorld article, open-source advocates within Microsoft were hoping to help the company “not only accept open-source software as a technology with which Microsoft's software has to interoperate effectively, but also to see it as beneficial to both Microsoft's own business goals and the industry as a whole.”

It’s safe to say that open-source has officially arrived in a big way at the majority of software companies. In the early days of the mobile OS wars, iOS fans cited Android’s open-source roots as a point of weakness, since the open-source nature of its mobile operating system allows outside parties to put their own spin on Google’s user experience.

Today, Apple CEO Tim Cook is promising that “you’ll see us open up more,” as he said at the recent All Things D conference D11.

Growing Up Open Source in a Proprietary World

Citrix, a multinational software company specializing in virtualization, SaaS, cloud and server software, has taken steps toward making the open-source ethos an intrinsic part of its corporate soul.

“When you let go, you get more in return,” says Peder Ulander, vice president of open source solutions at Citrix and the former CMO of Cloud.com, which built CloudStackthe open-source cloud computing software Citrix currently uses. “[Citrix is] recognizing that they need to have some fabric of open source that will touch all of the business as a whole.”

The open-source journey for Citrix began in 2007 with its acquisition of the Xen hypervisor project, which the company relied on for its XenServer product line. Today, Ulander points out, the company has taken a backseat in the ongoing development of Xen.

“It's being driven by the community,” he says. “We have a minority stake with regard to the number of developers on the project.”

While many in technology like to debate how open different companies’ open-source projects are, there’s no denying that open source has permanently shifted the way companies and users think about software. A recent survey of enterprise IT professionals found that 61 percent believed open source will spur innovation, according to a report from IBM’s Midsize Insider.

This attitude shift by businesses indicates that the closed-door, one-way approach to software is increasingly succumbing to the massive forces of choice in development and consumption.

The dominance of open source in today’s software development, such as in Android and Salesforce, is a monumental and welcome change in Ulander’s view.

“For the first time in an industry, open source is taking a lead in defining the market,” he says.


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