Bossie Awards 2011: The best open source software of the year

Open source software continues the march toward world domination, but the bright open promise dims

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Instead, the Linux Foundation, an umbrella organization charged with promoting and nurturing the code, staged a big party for the 20th birthday of Linux. The operating system is so ubiquitous now that it's hard to remember many of the challenges faced by developers long ago.

"There ain't a component out there that doesn't have Linux," Zemlin continued. "In embedded, it's No. 1 market share. In mobile devices, it's No. 1. In server side, it's No. 1. It's really the desktop where Linux hasn't made inroads."

It's easy to find hundreds of other positive signs of open source domination. If the mere existence of a tar file filled with code from the nether regions of a beeping device that's buried deep inside someone's pocket is all you need to feel warm and fuzzy about "open source," you might conclude that open source development is the most dominant form in the increasingly dominant platform of the future.

"Asking a developer to not use open source software is like asking a handyman to forge his own tools, nails, and rediscover how to generate electricity at every job site," said Chris DiBona, the open source programs manager at Google. "Open source is everywhere, and it is never going to go away."

Open source, closed platforms
Ah, but anyone who digs a bit deeper will find it's not so simple. Although the open source label is more and more ubiquitous, society is still a long way from Richard Stallman's vision of a world where anyone could reprogram anything at any time. Patents, copyrights, and corporate intrigue are bigger issues than ever for the community, and more and more people are finding that the words "open source" are no guarantee of the freedom to tinker and improve. Some cynics even suggest that the bright, open future is receding as Linux and other open source tools grow more dominant.

To make matters worse, there's a continual challenge to pay the bills. Success with tip jars and subscriptions is rare, and arm twisting is more common. Cynics even suggest that Google's decision to purchase Motorola is proof that even Google's powerful ad sales engine could not support giving away all of that Android code for free.

Consider the iPhone. It may be built around a BSD core, but Apple has deftly created its own impenetrable layer of security enforced with an iron will. Nothing runs on a stock iPhone without the express, digitally signed permission of the mothership. Some people defy these rules by jailbreaking the iPhone OS, but they risk turning their device into a useless brick. Every new release of the OS requires the jailbreakers to rediscover their way through the armor.

It doesn't matter how open the core of iOS happens to be. It doesn't matter how hard the BSD developers worked to release their code to the world under a very generous license. The platform built on top of it is the most locked down that ever existed.

This practice of running barbed wire around the commons to create a private grazing land is not the sole province of Apple, either. Google's Android platform seems dramatically more open because Google routinely releases big tarballs filled with almost all of the code. The Android Market is much more flexible than Apple's App Store, and it encourages competition.

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