On the same boat

The WIRED Guide to Open Source Software

Call To US — Jun 2020

Everything you ever wanted to know about Linux, GNU, and how big companies are making money off of free, collaboration-based software.

When someone buys a new smartphone, often they're preoccupied with the camera specs or the size of the screen or its storage capabilities. It's easy to overlook one of the most foundational aspects of these sleek consumer gadgets: their operating systems. The world's most popular mobile operating system is Google's Android. It powers more than 86 percent of smartphones in the world. What's even more remarkable is that Android is based on the open source Linux operating system.

That means anyone can view the code at the heart of the vast majority of smartphones, modify it, and, more important, share it with anyone else. This openness enables collaboration.

Why would Google give away something so central to its business? Because it hoped outside developers would make the software better as they adapted it to their own needs. And they have: Google says more than 1,300 outsiders have worked on TensorFlow. By making it open source, Google helped TensorFlow become one of the standard frameworks for developing AI applications, which could bolster its cloud-hosted AI services. In addition to garnering outside help for a project, open source can provide valuable marketing, helping companies attract and retain technical talent.

The Rise of Open Source

During the 2000s, open source went truly mainstream. In 2004, programmer David Heinemeier Hansson released his web application programming framework Ruby on Rails, which quickly became one of the world’s most important web development tools, as well as the foundation for services like Twitter and Kickstarter. Meanwhile, Yahoo was funding the development of the open source data-crunching system Hadoop. After its release in 2006, other companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and eBay began contributing to the project, helping demonstrate the value of inter-company collaboration. Sun Microsystems' $1 billion acquisition of MySQL in 2008 proved open source could be big business. That same year Google released its first Android phones, moving open source from the server to your pocket.

Now open source is practically everywhere. Walmart uses open source software like the development platform Node, and it has opened up the code of its cloud management tool OneOps and its development platform Electrode. JP Morgan Chase open sourced its blockchain platform Quorum, on which its employees collaborated with the creators of the privacy focused bitcoin alternative Zcash. Even Microsoft, whose former CEO once called Linux a "cancer," now uses and releases open source software such as its popular .NET programming framework. It even uses Linux to run parts of its cloud service Azure and has shared its own Linux tools with the community.

Open source isn’t counterculture anymore. It’s the establishment.

The Future of Open Source

The rise of open source hasn't been without glitches. Despite the corporate world's embrace of open source software, many independent or startup-based projects still haven't figured out how to make money. Even the developers of software that’s widely used by major companies can struggle to raise funds to cover their costs or hire others. That can have serious consequences.

Solving these funding problems is crucial to the future of open source. But money isn’t the only problem. The open source workforce is even less diverse than the tech industry as a whole, according to a survey conducted in 2017 by GitHub. Half of the respondents had witnessed bad behaviour—such as rudeness, name calling, or harassment—and said it was enough to keep them away from a particular project or community. Around 18 percent of survey respondents had experienced such bad behaviour firsthand. That's a problem because working on open source projects is now an important part of landing a job in technology. If women and minorities are shut out of open source, then the technology industry as a whole becomes that much less diverse.

Still, there are signs of progress. In 2018, Torvalds, long accused of creating a toxic environment in the Linux community, apologized for his past behaviour, and the Linux project adopted the Contributor Covenant.
Inclusion isn’t just an ethical issue for open source. Diverse teams build better products. And making better software is what open source is all about.

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Katrina Owen created Exercism, a platform to gain fluency in programming languages, to solve her own needs. Today, Exercism supports more than 50 programming languages, written and used by developers in over 200 countries.