We’ve seen a lot of open source announcements in the news lately—something we first covered last November. Since then, the announcements have continued, thick and fast.
Here are two announcements involving some of the world’s biggest companies from the last few days alone:
- Apple moves to third-generation Siri back-end, built on open source Mesos platform
- Microsoft’s open source ambitions pick up speed
Why are all these huge, multi-national corporations scrambling to embrace open source? Apple and Microsoft have almost bottomless budgets to develop their own proprietary software, don’t they? So what’s in it for them?
What is open source?
Before we kick things off, it’s probably worth defining ‘open-source software.’
At its most simple, an open source software’s source code is readily available to the public. Developers can access, read, study, tweak, and modify this code as they see fit. This allows users from all over the world to develop the software, then share their improvements with the greater community. As you can probably imagine: transparency and collaboration are at the heart of all successful open-source communities.
Consider it another way: let’s say I’m developing a piece of software by myself—my software’s ultimate potential is limited by my personal skillset, ambition, and philosophy.
But what if I were to work with a group of dedicated, ambitious developers? Things would be a lot better:
- We could identify bugs I’d personally overlooked.
- We could brainstorm more potential new features for the software than one person could.
- By putting our heads together, we could create a better long-term direction for the software’s growth.
In other words, the more skilled developers I can get on board, the better my software will be.
Of course, that means I can employ a small team to work on my software project alongside me—and that will probably work.
What happens, however, if I make my software open source? For a start, I can potentially enlist the help of hundreds of developers, maybe even thousands. Better still, my new team is offering their time and effort without financial compensation. They’re doing it for the love of it, and to help the community that uses my software.
Which option sounds better? Working alone, hiring a team, or an open-source collaboration? Really, it’s unsurprising that major companies are beginning to embrace the potential of open source.
In fact, here are a few key statistics coming out of the North Bridge and Black Duck Software’s annual open-source survey. They interviewed more than 1,300 IT and business professionals on their attitudes and behaviors towards open source. If you want to see their results in full, a detailed slideshow is available by following this link. For the more time-pressed, here are the headline findings:
- 78% run their business using open source (up from 42% in 2010)
- 64% are actively involved in open source projects (up 14% from last year)
- 88% expect their companies to become more involved in open source projects in the next 2-3 years
- 55% believe open source security is better than closed source
- 90% think that open source results in faster innovation
That’s a lot of positive noise coming from the open-source community, and open source looks set to grow exponentially for the foreseeable future.
But why is open source so popular? Today I want to quickly look at three primary reasons for the rise of open source.
1. Quality developers
You get what you pay for, right? With this in mind, won’t any software built for free by a group of volunteers be, well, rubbish?
In fact, open source projects actually attract some of the brightest talent in the industry.
If you’re truly passionate about a project, you’ll bring your best efforts to it, regardless of whether or not you’re receiving a paycheck. The tireless dedication of volunteers lies at the heart of all successful open-source projects.
That’s not the full story, however. Although it’s easy to assume that developers aren’t getting paid directly for their contributions to an open-source project, it doesn’t mean they’re not getting paid, period. Many developers contribute to open-source projects on their employer’s time.
Of course, I don’t mean they’re slacking off. Instead, many of the biggest companies who depend on open-source software will spare some of their manpower, making their developers available for work on open-source projects. This allows some of the best paid names in the field to make contributions.
Then there’s the argument that open-source projects are the perfect platforms for getting your name out there. What better way to announce yourself to a community than to make key contributions to the core software? It’s actually relatively common for big businesses to identify top talent because of their contributions to open source.
In reality, it doesn’t matter why someone contributes, but I wanted to highlight how some of the best developers get involved with open-source projects.
2. Quality software
The potential of community-driven, open-source software is far greater than that of a closed shop.
More minds, more ideas, more features. That should, in theory, result in higher quality software.
It’s also worth noting that contributors to open-source software generally have a better understanding of how and why the software is used—they’re a part of the community themselves, so they have a good idea of what the community wants to see. This means any new features added to the software usually serve a real community need.
It’s this community drive that can push open-source projects much further than closed source ones.
The team of developers behind open-source projects are ultimately committed to serving the software’s community and end users. This means security vulnerabilities are more likely to be dealt with quickly.
Case in point: the security vulnerabilities that hit the WordPress community last week. If you want to learn more about how and why the community dealt with them so quickly, here’s an excellent post.
The strength of open-source security is largely down to the volume of people working on the project. The more people there are using and interacting with the source code, the more likely someone is to spot a security vulnerabilities.
We’re living in a time where security is a primary concern for users—if something goes wrong, you could face a hefty lawsuit. We don’t want that for any member of our community; and so, open-source developers are extra diligent when it comes to security.
Open source and WordPress
Let’s bring our focus back to WordPress. As we all know, WordPress is open source. It has always been, since day one; and it will continue to be this way into the future.
WordPress, indisputably, owes a lot to its open-source model. It wouldn’t be where it is today without the dedicated team of contributors chipping away behind the scenes.
Take the latest update for example, WordPress 4.2—which I covered in more detail here. All of the new features in 4.2 were added by volunteers working to serve the WordPress community. Anyone can get involved, and even less technical users can make suggestions for what they’d like to see added to the WordPress core in future.
In other words, we’re all pulling together in the same direction. It’s this collaboration, teamwork, and community that has grown the WordPress platform to its current heights.
But you could also argue that open source owes a lot to WordPress.
It’s hard to imagine any other community embodying the spirit of open source better than the WordPress community. You could say that WordPress is the ‘poster child’ for open source, showing what’s possible when everyone pulls together for the greater good.
But it’s not just the WordPress core that’s open source, either. The majority of themes and plugins are GPL licensed—meaning anyone can study and tweak the code to suit their needs. For the most part, even premium theme and plugins are GPL licensed. That’s right, even those making money from their code are prepared to put the community first. Away from the code, you’ll also see WordPress businesses helping out direct competitors—it’s almost unheard of in any other industry.
WordPress’s open-source philosophy is deeply ingrained in our little community, and that’s how the WordPress platform grew and will continue to grow. If all open-source projects could capture WordPress’s sense of community, collaboration, and drive, we would see a lot more success stories.
Because of what the open-source WordPress project has achieved, many other big businesses are prepared to embrace open source projects. We’ve already seen a number of big announcements this year, so 2015 could be the year that open source goes mainstream.
What do you think about the future of open source? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!