5 key forces driving open source today

From the rise of foundations to emerging revenue models, the open source movement is primed for even greater impact on tomorrow's technologies

Nearly 15 years since the term "open source" was first applied, the trends driving the open source movement are not the same. Back then, price advantage, direct differentiation on licensing versus proprietary software, adoption-led marketing by innovative entrepreneurs, and market reaction against an ever more abusive monopolist were key factors shaping the direction of open source.

Today's open source movement is more mature, and the trends underlining it are more nuanced and widely engaged. The revolution has had a meaningful impact, and to treat open source as if it is still about saving a few bucks on a software license or socking it to Microsoft is to misunderstand how far the open source movement has come.

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The following five trends are key drivers of today's open source communities and projects. From governance to emerging revenue models, they paint a picture of an industry evolving to see the value of the freedoms at the heart of the open source movement.

1. The rise of open source foundations

Fifteen years into the movement, it's clear that no single form of open source governance is ideal. While many successful open source projects share characteristics in the abstract, every approach has its pitfalls and every community faces governance challenges. That stated, two themes summarize the recurring strengths of today's most successful open source projects.

First, while they may appear to be democracies, almost all are not. In nearly every case, the right to have a binding voice in determining outcomes -- by voting or as part of a formal consensus -- is granted to a limited number of community participants on the basis of merit associated with contribution of some kind. This results in a strong, relatively stable core leadership comprising the most favored leaders.

If the project is truly open, anyone can become a recognized contributor if they demonstrate merit, but in the end, "open, meritocratic oligarchy" is more apt than "democracy" in describing the way many open source communities operate: led by a stable group of recognized leaders, whose actions have demonstrated fitness to lead, yet who remain replaceable at any time should others prove more suitable. This characteristic has been clear throughout the history of open source.

A second common theme has become a trend in the past few years. As corporate engagement in open source has become stronger, projects have realized their common ground needs a place of its own, resulting in the rise of independent legal entities that act as containers for open source communities.

Usually labeled "foundations" regardless of their actual legal form, these nonprofit legal entities offer multiple benefits, including:

  • A host for managing fiscal and other shared resources such as trademarks and shared copyrights
  • An employer for staff serving the community and project
  • A guarantor and enabler for governance
  • An infrastructure provider
  • A liability firewall for community participants

These benefits individually reassure different parts of the community, but having them collected into an independent nonprofit frees participants from being unduly concerned about aspects that don't relate to them directly. Consequently, forming a foundation is usually noncontroversial because everyone can see a benefit.

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