OPEN SOURCE software is 20 years old this weekend.
At first, you might say "really, is that all?" but let's be clear on what we (and the industry) means by 'open source'.
It's not to do with copyright either. US law didn't allow software to be copyrighted until 1974, but that's still 24 years in the wilderness. Open source software still has a copyright. Somewhere. Lots of them in fact.
Open source is not free. Well, it usually is, but that's not the point. Open source means literally, that - the source code is open and editable and anyone can have it and modify it under the terms of a set licence. It's free to the end user, providing you don't profit from it yourself, and (in most cases) you contribute any changes you make back to the community.
It's a utopian dream that doesn't exist in many other industries - software by the people, for the people. But what's more amazing still is that it manages to sit alongside capitalism beautifully too - the software is free, the enterprise support will cost you. It's a wonder that the far-right hasn't singled it out as "leftie snowflake nonsense" yet.
Many people will look at you blankly when you say "open source", but everyone is using it every day. Android, the world's most popular mobile operating system is a proprietary build of open source code. Firefox is based on Netscape Navigator, the first open source package to be given that nomenclature. Java, one of the most used languages in the world, is open source.
And as we reach the beginning of open source's third decade, here lies the rub. Open source doesn't always rub shoulders with Closed Source as well as it might. On one hand, we have Microsoft, notorious for its closed nature, finally opening up parts of the .NET framework and introducing Linux to the Microsoft Store.
But then you have Google and Oracle, at loggerheads, not over the open source software in question (Android Linux and Java respectively) but rather the copyright on the APIs that allow the two to coexist. Oracle, which owns the rights to Java maintains that it can charge for those interfaces. Google won (at least for the moment) but make no mistake - if that case had gone the wrong way, Open Source as we know it could change forever.
Speaking about the anniversary, LibreOffice boss Italo Vignoli said: "I discovered open source when I was 50, while searching for an alternative to the proprietary office suite. Today, after 14 years, I could not work without FOSS even if I completely miss the technical background of the typical open source advocate, because FOSS is better than proprietary under every point of view (and most users are simply not aware of the advantages).
"In addition, open source software is educating people about the advantages of open standards not only in the technical environment but also in the area of simple office documents. FOSS has disrupted the software environment to the point that even some proprietary advocates are declaring their love, although they still fight FOSS on the desktop with every available weapon."
But opinion remains divided. Some believe that "open source has won", and there's a compelling case for that now that Microsoft is aboard. But we've also seen businesses, and indeed entire cities try to move fully to open source and fail. Fundamentally, it seems there's a suspicion of change and Microsoft, for all its faults, had a massive lead.
Others have objected to the term "open source", though its widely accepted today, under the wider term of "FOSS" (Free and Open Source Software) and under the auspices of the Open Source Initiative.
Speaking of whom, the OSI has a range of events throughout the year planned to celebrate open source, ranging from conferences to camps to summits.
The message is clear: "Our 20th Anniversary is a celebration of the open source software movement itself. We hope you'll join us in celebrating the code and communities."
So what does the future look like? Bruno Souza, boss of the Open Source Initiative, warns that the future is only as bright as its participants, failure is never far away, and awareness is everything:
"When does such a large society like this fail? When large amounts of people that don't (or don't want to or can't) understand the core values become part of it, and start to alter the meaning of those values.
"I think Open Source is going through a bit of this problem. When large amounts of people started to join shared repositories like GitHub, sharing took a different meaning, and Open Source seemed unnecessary. The same happened with the rush of the startups movement, and even government involvement, where Open Source started to mean using it, but not so much sharing... Once we start to play by different rules, things start to fall apart..."
It may sound doom and gloom but the reality is that the open source community (for all its bitching and in-fighting), is, for the most part, as strong as ever and seemingly in a good co-existent relationship with profit-making entities.
Whether either method has "won" or not seems immaterial now, the point is that open source has proved itself a valid contender in digital - arguably the biggest revolution mankind has ever been through - and that's more than enough. µ
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