Bleak future of open source in open web?
In the 9/2010 issue of the Wired magazine the big theme was: Is the Web dead? The take home message was that the heterogenous collection of independent companies, public institutions and individuals that made up the Web in past has been largely replaced by large centralised services, like FaceBook or Amazon. And above them all, Google. Google and similar do so many things with such economies of scale that there is little space left for others.
So the open Web has been largely replaced by closed systems, at least from the point of view of an average web surfer. The same happened to technologies also: in the past, standard HTML was all you needed. Now a collection of proprietary flashy technologies are used to deliver the user experience.
Closed systems can offer things that the Web could not: coherent and convenient user experience, and actually working business models for many new areas. In closed systems you can even have profitable electronic newspapers, something that has been proven close to impossible in Web, despite a lot of effort during the past 10 years. Apple has been leading the development in this area, with closed content systems such as iTunes and now iPad for electronic publishing.
This sounds quite sad for an open source supporter like me. Alongside with the open Web grew also the open source movement. Web is run by open components, for example the omnipresent LAMP stack (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP). If open Web is to lose ground for closed systems, will this happen also for open source? At least for practical reasons something like that will happen: Business models of large closed shops do not support open source too well.
It is obvious that this was bound to happen. We live in a world where closed and open coexist everywhere. As Web matured, it would have been very surprising if it stayed almost completely open, like it was in the beginning. The interesting question now is: How will the boundaries of open and closed be drawn when the shift is over? What are the strengths of open source that help it keep up with the closed invasion?
Free software enthusiasts usually don't like when people think about free software mainly as, well, software that does not cost anything. However I think that it is a valid point and a central aspect of open source. With virtualised environments and cloud systems, even a license cost of 0.01 euros can be hugely different to 0.00 euros. The logistical distinction of having to or not having to think about license distribution in a complex and dynamic environment can make a big difference. Coupled with the fact that open source is easier to tailor to your own needs, you might summarise current rapid evolution of computing platforms like this: We do not know what our computing platforms will look like in 5 years time, but we know that open source software is more likely to be adoptable to that future, what ever it is.
I've heard that MySQL (before the Sun/Oracle exercise) considered open source as an only viable model from business point of view, because the market of low end databases was so lean that it would have been impossible to extract any profit out of it with the traditional closed approach. Lean and highly efficient cloud system running in huge data centers are the forecasted way of the future, so the drive is towards licensing models that can cope with very lean markets.
In a similar vein, open source can be used to create collaboration between even the worst enemies. Take Apache as an example: They are sponsored by a collection of companies that basically embody the front lines of the competitive IT market. Many of the projects combine big players that can be considered to be in a tight competition in some other market. For an example, the three platinum sponsors of Apache are Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. They also happen to be the three companies that compete in the web search market. Let's hope that the Chinese Baidu joins the ranks some day.
As a last note, I would like to bring up the human point of view. From there, the latest developments are easy to understand. People in general do not care about the technologies behind the Web. If the portal works and delivers content that others don't, then people are going to use it. But "people in general" are not the only people in the Web. There is also us, the developers. We do not count high in numbers, but in impact we are at least on the level of the general public. After all, it is us that come up with all this stuff. From a developer's point of view, or at least in my point of view, open source is more fun to work with. I see it also as the more ethical choice most of the time: When writing open source software, you get paid for creating something new, not for forcing a stranglehold on people who use the software. If developers still believe that open source is a viable development model, then it is not going to go anywhere.