The future of open source is still very much in flux

When Xerox donated a new laser printer to the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1980, the company couldn’t have known that the machine would ignite a revolution. The printer jammed. And according to the 2002 book Free as in Freedom, Richard M. Stallman, then a 27-year-old programmer at MIT, tried to dig into the code to fix it. He expected to be able to: he’d done it with previous printers.

The early decades of software development generally ran on a culture of open access and free exchange, where engineers could dive into each other’s code across time zones and institutions to make it their own or squash a few bugs. But this new printer ran on inaccessible proprietary software. Stallman was locked out—and enraged that Xerox had violated the open code-sharing system he’d come to rely on.

A few years later, in September 1983, Stallman released GNU, an operating system designed to be a free alternative to one of the dominant operating systems at the time: Unix. Stallman envisioned GNU as a means to fight back against the proprietary mechanisms, like copyright, that were beginning to flood the tech industry. The free-software movement was born from one frustrated engineer’s simple, rigid philosophy: for the good of the world, all code should be open, without restriction or commercial intervention.

Forty years later, tech companies are making billions on proprietary software, and much of the technology around us—from ChatGPT to smart thermostats—is inscrutable to everyday consumers. In this environment, Stallman’s movement may look like a failed values experiment crushed under the weight of commercial reality. But in 2023, the free and open-source software movement is not only alive and well; it has become a keystone of the tech industry.

Today, 96% of all code bases incorporate open-source software. GitHub, the biggest platform for the open-source community, is used by more than 100 million developers worldwide. The Biden administration’s Securing Open Source Software Act of 2022 publicly recognized open-source software as critical economic and security infrastructure. Even AWS, Amazon’s money-making cloud arm, supports the development and maintenance of open-source software; it committed its portfolio of patents to an open use community in December of last year. Over the last two years, while public trust in private technology companies has plummeted, organizations including Google, Spotify, the Ford Foundation, Bloomberg, and NASA have established new funding for open-source projects and their counterparts in open science efforts—an extension of the same values applied to scientific research.

The fact that open-source software is now so essential means that long-standing leadership and diversity issues in the movement have become everyone’s problems. Many open-source projects began with “benevolent dictator for life” (BDFL) models of governance, where original founders hang on to leadership for years—and not always responsibly. Stallman and some other BDFLs have been criticized by their own communities for misogynistic or even abusive behavior. Stallman stepped down as president of the Free Software Foundation in 2019 (although he returned to the board two years later). Overall, open-source participants are still overwhelmingly white, male, and located in the Global North. Projects can be overly influenced by corporate interests. Meanwhile, the people doing the hard work of keeping critical code healthy are not consistently funded. In fact, many major open-source projects still operate almost completely on volunteer steam.

Challenges notwithstanding, there’s plenty to celebrate in 2023, the year of GNU’s 40th birthday. The modern open-source movement persists as a collaborative haven for transparent ways of working within a highly fragmented and competitive industry. Selena Deckelmann, chief product and technology officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, says the power of open source lies in its “idea that people anywhere can collaborate together on software, but also on many [more] things.” She points out that tools to put this philosophy into action, like mailing lists, online chat, and open version control systems, were pioneered in open-source communities and have been adopted as standard practice by the wider tech industry. “We found a way for people from all over the world, regardless of background, to find a common cause to collaborate with each other,” says Kelsey Hightower, an early contributor to Kubernetes, an open-source system for automating app deployment and management, who recently retired from his role as a distinguished engineer at Google Cloud. “I think that is pretty unique to the world of open source.”

The 2010s backlash against tech’s unfettered growth, and the recent AI boom, have focused a spotlight on the open-source movement’s ideas about who has the right to use other people’s information online and who

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By: Rebecca Ackermann
Title: The future of open source is still very much in flux
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Published Date: Thu, 17 Aug 2023 09:00:00 +0000


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