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The new struggles facing open source

Matt Asay | April 7, 2015
The religious wars have faded, as new conflicts around control, code ‘sharecropping,’ ‘fauxpen source,’ and n00b-sniping arise.

The early days of open source were fraught with religious animosities we feared would tear apart the movement: free software fundamentalists haggling with open source pragmatists over how many Apache licenses would fit on the head of a pin. But once commercial interests moved in to plunder for profit, the challenges faced by open source pivoted toward issues of control.

While those fractious battles are largely over, giving way to an era of relative peace, this seeming tranquility may prove more dangerous to the open source movement than squabbling ever did.

Indeed, underneath this superficial calm, plenty of tensions simmer. Some are the legacy of the past decade of open source warfare. Others, however, break new ground and arguably threaten open source far more than the GPL-vs.-Apache battle ever did.

How we got here: From purity to profit
The different sides used to be clear. Richard Stallman chaired the committee on free software purity while Eric S. Raymond inspired the open source movement.

Both sides rigidly held to their cause. And both sides draped themselves in a different licensing flag: GPL for the free software purists, BSD/Apache for the open sourcerors.

Not surprising, the increasing popularity of both camps stirred significant financial interest; thus, the profit motive came to open source. VCs prowled for projects with enough downloads to justify a support-and-service business model. Companies like Alfresco, JBoss, XenSource, and Zimbra sprang up to capitalize on the industry's interest in open source, with developers increasingly wary of their be-suited new neighbors.

As these startups grew toward IPOs, however, the support-and-service model ran out of gas, as 451 Research analyst Matt Aslett warned. Then began the "open source plus proprietary add-ons" era of open source, with companies building "enterprise versions" of open source projects, withholding features for paid subscribers. The dreaded Open Core model was born, and the industry set out to tear itself apart over accusations of bait-and-switch and proprietization of open source.

The era of milquetoast open source
Excoriating fellow open source proponents on a grand stage over grand themes seems at this point a figment of the past. Infighting has become more contained, almost on a project-by-project basis. The GPL has steadily diminished in importance as developers have opted for the laissez-faire approach of Apache-style licensing. Commercial interests run rampant in open source. It's how open source is done these days -- which may be the fundamental issue facing open source today.

As free software advocate Glyn Moody argues, a certain amount of tension in open source is desirable because a lack of tension "means people don't care anymore." He's right, but what belies this semblance of open source as a happy, if bland, family today is a shift away from passionate arguments about freedom and toward a more calculated conflict over control.


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