A Bountiful Year for Open Source

Artwork: Chip Taylor
It is now just over 12 years since seven people sat down in a conference room in Silicon Valley to fix what they saw as the marketing problem with the words "free software." Most people thought that the word "free" meant only that no one had to pay. It seemed they didn't have an attention span long enough to try to grok what Richard Stallman was saying when he kept repeating, "'free,' as in speech."

After considering dozens of combinations, Christine Peterson hit upon "open source," and the phrase has grown to represent a section of the software marketplace big enough to merit its own end-of-the-year roundup.

[ InfoWorld's Bossie Awards recognize the best open source software of the year: Best open source applications | Best open source application development software | Best open source platforms and middleware | Best open source networking software. ]

If anything, rounding up the news about open source is impossible these days because there's just so much of it. Still, gross generalizations are easy to make as long as everyone realizes they're wrong as often as they're right. There are hundreds of thousands of projects floating about the Web, and any statement is probably correct for some subset, however small.

There's little doubt that open source projects are flourishing, at leasta as measured by their sheer numbers. There are 1.49 million projects at GitHub. SourceForge tallies more than 2 million downloads a day.

Code is everywhere, and it is more and more likely to be open source from the bottom to the top of the stack. Ruby, Python, Perl, JavaScript, and PHP dominate the list of top languages at GitHub. This code, in turn, runs on open source libraries that sit on Linux. Although proprietary coding tools and extensions continue to proliferate, the core is increasingly fully open source.

This domination is pushing into other areas. Open source content management systems like web.py, phpBB, CakePHP, Lift, Drupal, Joomla, and probably hundreds of other open source CMS frameworks are packaging up most of the information you read today. It is rare to find a website that depends on just Apache to deliver the content.

Scientists and academics are pushing open source software even further. Mathematicians are exploring bundling their equations in Sage notebooks, and biologists seem to love Python. Moodle is the dominant courseware tool. The list from the world of research is endless, especially since it's now common for colleagues to expect open source code and data to accompany the text.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
There's even more good news on the business side. Champagne corks were popping as open source advocates everywhere celebrated the predictions that Red Hat -- one of the original believers in openness -- should clear $1 billion in revenue for the year if IT departments keep spending at the current rate. This milestone is all the more noteworthy because MySQL was earning much less when Sun paid $1 billion for it. At current stock prices, Red Hat is worth more than $9 billion.

Some cynics, though, are skeptical about whether $1 billion truly measures the success of the open source ideals. In a sense, every purchase of a server license represents someone who did not download, share, compile, or remix the source code. While true open source licenses are a tradition at Red Hat, the product page is set up to let people "buy" licenses that are counted by the number of "sockets," another way of measuring CPU power.

Red Hat continues to push service, custom engineering, training, and completely open versions such as Fedora and CentOS, but many parts of it seem much closer to a big business than a hippie commune. Its success illustrates how open source is not just a path for DIY enthusiasts or profit-hating communitarians.

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