In looking for a “Big Themes” to latch on to for 2014, I keep coming back to open source — and what it means for just about every industry. The more I look into it, the more huge it seems.
The open-source revolution isn’t a new idea, and I don’t presume to be the first to glean insight from it. Michael Skok, who is more of a software expert than I, has done a good job describing it in a LinkedIn post called “Open Source Is Eating The Software World,” (LinkedIn membership required), which is also a reference to venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, “Why Software is Eating the World” (WSJ subscription required).
Skok, whom I interviewed recently by email, talked about the results of a survey called the Future of Open Source, which shows open source software is experiencing broad adoption across all industries. This has led to a lot of investment. In 2012, open source venture investment jumped 80 percent over the prior year, with $553M invested compared to $307M in 2011, according to the survey.
Big technology shifts are common over time, but I can’t think of one this broad-based. Open technologies such as Linux, Android, Hadoop, Drupal, OpenStack and OpenFlow are taking over the technology world — in nearly every single market segment, and in many different industry verticals.
For example, in telecom, OpenFlow and Linux have driven the Software Defined Networks (SDN) movement. In the content management system business, open-source software Drupal is making big inroads. In mobile it’s Android, which the Rayno Report identified very early on in 2010 as a game-changing technology. I can’t think of a time when a major tech trend was happening in parallel in nearly every single market.
This is about as disruptive as disruptive gets. It’s fundamentally different. While large, proprietary incumbents such as Cisco and Microsoft have tried to be dismissive of these developments as threats, they are indeed huge threats. Windows and Cisco’s Internetwork Operating System (IOS) are eventually going to be toast — the only question for them and their stock prices is how long it will take.
The technology companies that don’t embrace the major open-source movements will be destroyed. The ones that embrace them will succeed. Just look at how Google engineered open-source Android to change the entire mobile industry.
The headline here may be obvious, but the mechanics of it are not. Think about how an “ecosystem” is developed in the technology space. You need to gain power, and in order to do that you must gain market share. To do that you need some kind of critical mass, with either a stellar product, reseller channel, or code base. I would argue that to do this, getting wide adoption of your code is the first, and most important step, because it becomes the DNA of the market. You have to give developers a reason to be there. They are the soldiers in your war. Not to belabor the point, but look at how Android destroyed Microsoft Mobile — coders and apps.
These developer “soldiers” were often recruited to proprietary platforms in the 1990s and early 2000s. Dominant companies such as Microsoft and Cisco were exceptional at recruiting developers into their ecosystem. This is where they won the war. Now it’s how they are losing it, because the developers have moved to open-source platforms where the dominant tech companies have no power.
When’s the last time you heard about C+ and Visual Basic driving the world of software innovation? The new world is now about Linux, Android, Hadoop, OpenStack and OpenFlow.
Virtually all of the growing foundational technologies these days are open-source, and driven by a more grass-roots, less commercial mindset. They can’t be co-opted by any one (or two) companies. This trend appears to be accelerating. Linux, the open-source software, is probably the best example. It was initially dismissed as a niche technology, but slowly it gained followers — and then accelerated.
The Linux project, begun by Linus Torvalds, is a demonstration of how a unique open-source project can take over the world. The first Linux kernel was made available in 1991. Soon there were many flavors — or derivatives — of Linux for nearly every industry and applications, and now one could argue it is one of the most popular operating systems in the world. It is still growing, and according to CNET, more than 1,400 developers contribute to the central Linux kernel. Thousands of others toy with Linux add-ons. It’s still growing fast.
This has a cost for competitors. Microsoft’s Windows operating share is being eaten away in the server market by Linux, make no doubt about it. In the mobile market, Android has been victorious. Android recently topped 80% of global market share, according to Strategy Analytics.
Of course, not all proprietary operating systems and code are dead. Apple’s iOS is still growing. But Apple is probably an outlier, if only because it makes such excellent products. And it, too, is certainly under competitive pressures from open source, as viewed by its race with Android.
Even telecom networks, which are often walled gardens protected by a small number of players focused on high-end, proprietary gear, are falling to open source. The entire SDN movement is about open source. There are dozens of startups hoping to use OpenFlow or OpenStack technologies to guild a new generation of interoperating networking gear. Companies such as Cumulus Networks are shaking things up by introducing Linux OS for data-center and networking hardware.
So to all of the smug, over-confident executives running large, multinational technology goliaths, please make a note at the top of your 2014 resolutions: Pay attention to open source. Forge a long-term strategy. Plug into the developer networks. And figure out how to make this work for your business.