A beginners guide to Open Source Innovation

January 11, 2021

How it started – How it’s going…

When Open Source (or better: free software) started in the 1980ies, it was a movement to gain back control over devices and computers. In the early days, computers had been sold and the software was coming with it, source code included, so everyone could explore it. 

But when software companies started to enter the market, things began to change: software was seen as “intellectual capital” and the source code was protected and not disclosed.

People like Richard Stallman started to build free and open alternatives of commercial software and founded the GNU project. This was the start of the first era of Open Source.

Free Software and Open Source Software: The first era (1984 – 2000)

The free and open source software movement created a wide variety of alternatives to proprietary software like Operating Systems (with Linux the most prominent of them), databases, web servers, compilers and many other things. But most of the innovation created there stayed in the academic and hobbyist ecosystem. Open Source was already dominating in the early internet community and created the base of the internet and the world wide web we know today. 

But the corporate world took a different route: In the mid-nineties, the internet was not a hot topic in enterprise IT. Proprietary IT companies like Microsoft, Novell and SUN microsystems dominated the market there at that time. But when the internet became more relevant in corporate IT in the late nineties also the relevance of Open Source began to rise in corporate IT. 

This led to the next phase:

The route to (infrastructure) world domination (2000-2010)

At the high peak of the Dotcom bubble everyone adopted internet technology into their companies. TCP/IP, DNS, Web Servers and Browsers started to make their way into corporate IT architectures. With that many Open Source tools landed in corporations and the world was waiting for proper enterprise ready service offerings to enter the market. And when then with Red Hat Enterprise Linux also a professional operating system was available the enterprise gates were wide open for Open Source!

At the end of this era, a complete ecosystem of Open Source infrastructure software was available and widely used in most enterprises. Finally it was very hard for proprietary vendors to sell infrastructure software that targeted a broad adoption. Linux became the dominant and fastest growing operating system and in the data center and also in the still young and premature public cloud.

Phase 3: Innovation takes over (2011 – 2020)

During the last decade we could witness a fundamental change: Because of the ubiquitous Open Source infrastructure new developments and innovative technology have been built on top of it. Additionally the public cloud and ready to use SaaS collaboration services like Github and Trello made collaboration and exchange so much easier than before. 

But that’s not all: new projects also adopted the collaborative development model and suddenly all new technologies started as Open Source (in one form or another). Examples are Hadoop, NoSQL databases or later OpenStack, Docker and Kubernetes. AI and ML technologies like Pytorch, Tensorflow, etc. are following.

And today? It’s hard to imagine that any new breakthrough infrastructure innovation will be anything but Open Source. Because of its superior development model.

What will be next?

The Open Source development model has been proven so successful that it is very unlikely that the movement will be stopped at infrastructure IT software. In the era of digitization IT is the driving technology behind nearly every business. Demand on new software is so high that most likely Open Source will be used here too. I predict that we will see an accelerated adoption of Open Source innovation within the following areas of enterprise IT:

  • SaaS provided enterprise collaboration software
    This process is already heavily ongoing and started with mail and conferencing, but CRM, ERP, HR and other solutions will follow fast. Among the providers there will also be a “coopetition” situation since the solutions need to stay interoperable and must provide open APIs. Open Source will be a natural way to provide that. In contrast to consumer targeted platforms we will probably not see a “winner takes it all” market, since the diversity of the enterprise market should provide room for enough niche players.
  • Rapid development and low-code platforms for internal developed software
    The remaining internal developed software needs to be built on stable grounds but with speed in mind. So new apps are built on widely used Open Source frameworks. The entry barrier must stay very low which makes it very hard for proprietary vendors to gain a foothold here.
  • Vertical industry solutions
    Traditionally vertical industries often created standard bodies to define interfaces that needed to be followed by vendors in this market. But this procedure has a big drawback: It takes too much time to define the standard first and then start to develop software against it. Now we see vertical Open Source communities building up to develop the main interfaces collaboratively in Open Source to be faster to the market. The Open Source license is then the guarantee that all collaborating and competing vendors have the same fair condition.

In this blog series we plan to introduce and discuss examples of Open Source innovation that enters new markets and makes technology accessible to everyone. And this is definitely the greatest benefit of Open Source for our society.

Beyond software?

Maybe we will see that the idea of openness will be applicable to more than just code: What if also the physical products of the industry become part of the community? What if a pandemic can be a turning point to a new business model also in pharmacy and vaccines and drugs could be released as Open Source to make them available much faster to the world. We need speed and innovation to fight with the climate crisis, too. I strongly believe that Open Source can and will be a driving force here.

As a Red Hatter I believe that “Open unlocks the world’s potential”. Let’s prove it together!   

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