Winning the Open Source Battle

Last month, the Chief Information Officer and Chief Acquisition Officer of the United States released Memo M-16-21, titled "Federal Source Code Policy: Achieving Efficiency, Transparency, and Innovation through Reusable and Open Source Software". This memo establishes a software policy for the Federal Government that not only encourages the use of open source, but creates a pilot program wherein 20% of newly written software must be released as open source (with some exceptions). You can read the complete memo here and can find a scan of the actual document from the Executive Office of the President here. This builds on the policies established by the CIO of the US Department of Defense in 2009, described in a DoD memo which provides "clarifying guidance" regarding open source software. Its goal is to do a bit of education regarding the benefits of open source and when DoD agencies should consider using it. You can find that memo on the DoD CIO website, here.

There have been a number of tech news outlets proclaiming the victory of open source for the last couple of years, and the most recent memo, establishing the US Federal Source Code Policy, has solidified that opinion for many people. If that isn't enough to convince you, the fact that Apple at one point tried to claim they were the first people to "do open source" should indicate how important it is. Now that took courage.

Open source is as much a business decision as a technical one, and sometimes it's not the right choice - that's okay in my book. But, in my opinion, much of the time, the benefits vastly outweigh the cons. I'm encouraged to see recognition of this at the Federal level, and I'm hopeful that this public acknowledgment will drive more companies to learn about how they can benefit from open source software and development workflows, even if their products contain secret sauce IP that they cannot make open.

What's interesting about the statement that "open source has won" is that it implies the OSS community was fighting a battle against non-open software. There are indeed organizations that are fighting that battle based on philosophical principles, the Free Software Foundation being the most well-known, but most open source developers and users also regularly use proprietary software and services. The primary battle for open source was never about "beating" non-open software for most open-source advocates. It was about proving that open source is not only viable, but that it can be tremendously beneficial.

I do think open source has won the battle of proving its own value, but unfortunately I don't think the open source community can spin down the engines. I still encounter a lot of confusion about open source, and I'm often surprised by the amount of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) that is ingrained in many companies' views of open source software. And that's just about using open source software. Successfully creating an open source project seems to be an insurmountable hurdle for many companies, and there are many examples of organizations that have tried but are left scratching their heads as to why no community exists around their project even years later.

Open source is genuinely a great way to reduce costs, grow a customer base, displace a competitor, or achieve any number of other business objectives. Ultimately, it can be a highly effective way to create more profit for a business, and that can be one of the strongest arguments of all.

Ben Hilburn

Ben Hilburn

bits, nibbles, bytes, and words
D.C. Metro Area