Take a brief look at the web today and you might think open source has a lot of influence:

  • Swift is open source, from Apple.
  • HHVM is open source, from Facebook.
  • Android is open source, from Google.
  • Bootstrap is open source, from Twitter.
  • .Net is open source from Microsoft.

The fundamental technology behind many of today’s big corporate platforms is open source. These enormous corporations release dozens of open source projects:

But I wonder if this is a mirage.

Despite the widespread open source, we’re entering a world of closed platforms:

  • Today’s iOS9 launch shows what incredible power a single company has over so many independent publishers. Apple would love to push us into reading via the News App (built on open source!) using Webkit (built on open source!).
  • Facebook is trying to get publishers to write directly for their Pages platform (built on open source!), rather than on the independent web.
  • Android is the world’s largest mobile platform (built on open source!), but have you seen what happens to phone manufacturers who don’t play by Google’s rules?

These companies use open source tools to build closed platforms and walled gardens.

Open source is really popular. But if the majority of the web ends up inside walled gardens, what have we gained?

Update: there’s a useful conversation about this post on Reddit.

Update 2: John Gruber has an insightful post on this, showing how Google, Microsoft, and Apple have veto power over web technologies.

Update 3: Here’s a great example of the point I was making:

Facebook … takes pains to argue there’s nothing proprietary about what it’s doing, and that it is using the same code that Web publishers already use to put out its Instant Articles. In Facebook engineer-speak, Instant Articles are “defined in an open format.”

5 thoughts on “Open source has reach, but no influence

  1. We’ve gained some ability to compete, but in cases like Google
    controlling the main Android network which Amazon’s branch got kicked
    out of, we havent gained much. The “influence” of opensource is seen
    where theres larger penalties (of whatever form) for proprietary than
    for opensource. A penalty can be public opinion or more directly
    enforced by things like AGPL3’s legal rules for networks. We’re not
    there yet in many areas.

  2. Thanks Ben. Yes, you make a good point about the PR.

    I think companies like Google are able to get that positive PR while still maintain a tight grip on the codebase.

  3. You’re right, but let’s acknowledge nearly everything is running on some type of open source server stack, and the underlying hardware is not locked up in the intellectual property of a single company. It could have been otherwise.

    The development of walled gardens is probably driven most by consumer demand. Apple products work really well together. Windows 10 rips off iOS and gets ahead of OSX in a few ways that make it work really well as a walled garden too. For people who just want their stuff to work, loyalty to one brand’s garden makes good sense, but you don’t have to pick just one. It’s easier today than it used to be to have Windows and OSX machines on the same network. Running multiple operating systems on any hardware is no big deal. Microsoft and Apple applications in the cloud or installed locally run on each others’ devices.

    The walled gardens have some decent bridges between them driven by people’s need to get work done. People want their information to be free — to be able to move between systems without roadblocks and tolls. They care less about software licenses and costs, but the “just work/don’t get in my way” demand seems to be having the effect of driving the costs down and making the software more open in terms of interoperability if not its licensing.

    As one of the Reddit commenters notes, “All production costs are headed to zero marginal cost.” Software is just one part of the larger story of “the crisis of proliferation” that Jacques Attali described in 1976 for how it would impact the music industry, and now he says 3D printing will disrupt every physical product you can sell.

    Maybe capitalism ends up creating the ultimate quasi-communist system where everything is virtually free and you can’t recreate the effect of scarcity with customer lock-in based on broken inter-operability and inhibited data flow. You have to make good stuff people want and support it in a way they love with expertise and care they don’t have/time for.

    The only thing that is scarce is time.

  4. Wonderful comment as always Dan. I’d subscribe the heck out of a blog if you started one 🙂

    “let’s acknowledge nearly everything is running on some type of open source server stack, and the underlying hardware is not locked up in the intellectual property of a single company.”

    Yes, very true. I slightly changed the focus of the post after publishing (as you can see in the URL). Originally the post said, “we’re asking the wrong questions”.

    Open source has won in some areas and has answered many questions successfully, especially for servers. But, those were the important questions in 2005.

    We need to be asking new questions, especially as consumer demand is running away from the open web.

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