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2010: The year open source went invisible

The price of progress

Open...and Shut The big open source news in 2010 is that open source became essentially invisible. It's not that the media stopped reporting on open source. Far from it. Up until 2010, coverage of open source had remained roughly static, as evidenced by Google News result for "open source" in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

In 2010 that number roughly doubled, but the types of stories changed dramatically. Instead of news of some "hot new startup" applying open source to the exciting world of invoice management, in 2010 we saw open source pervade every area of software, and it became particularly evident in the strategies of web giants like Facebook and Google.

For such companies, open source wasn't a business model, per se. Instead, it became an essential element of a great variety of business models, each baking in open-source complements to drive some form of proprietary value elsewhere. 2010 was the year that open source ceased to be a competitive differentiator for vendors and instead became standard operating procedure for everyone...even Microsoft (though still to a small extent for the Redmond giant).

Hence, for example, 2010 was the year that we talked a great deal about NoSQL citizens like Cassandra and MongoDB, but not so much because of the companies formed to monetize them (Riptano and 10gen, respectively), but rather because of the exciting web applications built using them.

These web applications, mostly built using open-source technologies like Hadoop and Lucene, have turned the idea of an operating system on its head. Or rather, in Tim O'Reilly's words, the operating system is now "the whole web."

Yes, Red Hat continued to hit new revenue and stock heights in 2010, turning an old-school operating system business into gold by taking on VMware while competing effectively with Microsoft. But the rest of the world moved online in 2010, with SaaS and cloud computing the new default for applications.

And where are these applications being delivered? To a proliferating population of mobile devices, also running open-source operating systems.

Google came up with two on its own - Android and Chrome OS - to cover its bases on encouraging geeks to contribute to Google's total world domination. And while Chrome OS never quite got out the gate in 2010, despite assurances that it would ship in late fall, Android more than made up for Chrome OS' delays, with Google's Andy Rubin tweeting: "There are over 300,000 Android phones activated each day."

That's a heck of a lot of phones running open source. Even more than Apple ships.

Apple, of course, didn't let this open-source momentum go unnoticed, and launched a lawsuit against Google's Android through its licensee, HTC. Not to be outdone, Microsoft and Oracle also sent lawyers to the Googleplex. About the only company that didn't is Research in Motion. Nice Canadians.

All of which is a long way of saying that while open source has become integral to so much software development, it hasn't remotely ended the reign of proprietary software. Indeed, much (most?) open-source software is paid for out of proprietary profits.

This might have been shocking news in, say, 2004, but it's common knowledge in 2010. Open source is how we do business 10 years into this new millennium.

Open source hasn't worked equally well for everyone, of course.

Novell whimpered to a buy-out from Attachmate, ending months of speculation that VMware would swoop in to buy its SUSE Linux business. And while that remains a possibility, the bigger question is exactly which patents Novell sold to Microsoft. Novell insists it retains the Unix copyrights, but it hasn't been forthcoming on many details.

Microsoft, for its part, did squeak out a lawsuit to attempt to stem the Android tide, and that was largely the extent of its engagement with open source in 2010. In fact, Microsoft had a great opportunity to embrace open source when its Kinect technology was hacked, but the company's initial reaction was to declare it would "continue closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant."

Old habits die hard in Redmond.

A week and a half later, Microsoft backtracked and said it was "perfectly comfortable with hobbyists taking advantage" of the flexibility of the Kinect technology. It's a big move for a company that has struggled to embrace an open-source logos, and perhaps portends positive change in 2011.

Meanwhile, Oracle, despite ramping investments in MySQL, seems to have decimated a great deal of goodwill among open-source developers, given its tight control of Java and apparent unconcern over OpenOffice. Oracle actually succeeded in making Microsoft look like an excellent open-source citizen in 2010, despite all Microsoft's missteps.

In summary, open source experienced serious flux in 2010, with one constant: developers. They are "the new kingmakers," according to Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady, the essential architects of business success without actually making business headlines. The best companies are those that harness the collective energy of developers most effectively, and open source is the central element for accomplishing this. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears every Friday on The Register.

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