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New developers can’t imagine a world without open source. Here is why that matters

Commentary: The younger the developer, the more likely they’ve never experienced a world without open source as the default licensing paradigm. That might have a big impact on open source definitions.

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Image: uriz, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Open source and cloud have become so pervasive so fast that it’s easy to forget how relatively new they are. Indeed, as GitHub CTO Jason Warner recently noted, “Anyone who started their career after, say, 2012 might not know another way of working.” Think that’s an exaggeration? Well, no, as James Timmins, commenting on Warner’s tweet, made clear: “I still don’t understand the concept of non-OSS. Like, you had to pay to use languages, frameworks, and databases?”

Strange, but true. 

SEE: 10 ways to prevent developer burnout (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What a long, strange trip it’s been

For those who have been around the industry a bit longer, you’ll remember that proprietary software was the default for most everything. As Oxide cofounder Bryan Cantrill said in a recent interview: 

[T]he domain that really spoke to me in software engineering was operating systems kernel development, and OS kernel development was one of the first places, maybe the first place, really, other than compilers, to be really disrupted by open source…. [For] the operating system, … open source became table stakes. You cannot build a proprietary OS today. That’s not something for which there’s a market.

This pairs well with a statement made years ago by Cloudera cofounder Mike Olson:

[T]here’s been a stunning and irreversible trend in enterprise infrastructure. If you’re operating a data center, you’re almost certainly using an open source operating system, database, middleware and other plumbing. No dominant platform-level software infrastructure has emerged in the last ten years in closed-source, proprietary form.

“Stunning and irreversible.” It seems so obvious today, but it absolutely wasn’t in the 2000s and certainly before then. Over time, Cantrill went on, “open source will come for everybody… [because] ultimately we can expect all software, certainly more and more software, to become open source.”

And yet….

Growing up on open source

The conversation between Warner and Timmins is fascinating, given all that it reveals about the different experiences developers have had, depending on when they entered the industry. This might also help to explain the seeming disconnect between those in the industry who hold fast to the Open Source Definition, and (often) younger engineers who expect evolution in open source thinking.

Warner: Remember when you had to buy your programming language? Competing lisp implementations from various vendors. Such a weird time. Def needed to grow the industry but the dark ages for sure.

Timmins: Wild. How expensive was all of that? Was it like the language was cheap but DB/framework were pricy? I always hear how expensive servers and Oracle DBs were, but never the other parts.

Warner: I don’t recall how expensive languages were tbh. Before my time really. I always used OSS stuff even in the ’90s. Middleware and DBs were super expensive. Entire fortunes were made on those. I think really only [Microsoft] was left selling languages and frameworks by then.

Timmins: Gotcha. I’d love to read more about this whole time period. Seems like most tech books are pre-1990 or post-Facebook, but I wanna know what it was like to update an Oracle DB in 1994, for example.

No, Timmins, you probably don’t want to know that. Some things are best forgotten. 🙂 

More seriously, it’s not strange that there are such divergent opinions on what open source should look like. For a generation growing up with open source as the default–not something to fight for, but something that is taken for granted–the issues are different. Ethics, for one, not mere existence. Perhaps if we keep this in mind, it will help make our discussions about the evolution of open source more productive. 

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the views expressed herein are mine.

Also see

This post was written by and was first posted to TechRepublic

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