While these new features are fun, it will still be a few years until we need to hire Joan Rivers to work the red carpet for this event. Most of the excitement in open source continues to be in experimental projects built by programmers to solve their problems. The front ends of Web applications are morphing to use AJAX, thanks to cross-browser libraries such as jQuery, Ext, YUI, and others. The back ends are stuffing data into newfangled, lightweight databases and adding search features with engines like Lucene. Every place in the stack is being reworked to be smoother, faster, and simpler.
Competition is also the rule. Many of these projects compete with each other for mind share while simultaneously collaborating. The world of content management systems, for instance, is dominated by projects such as WordPress, Drupal, Plone, and many more. All routinely look to each other for inspiration and sometimes for raw code. The open source licenses make it relatively easy for anyone to port new ideas and innovative code from one project to the next.
In the past, some suggested that packages like Linux largely imitated the work of proprietary companies such as AT&T, Apple, and Microsoft. Catching up was easy, the critics noted, but creating something new takes time, and programmers can't always work for free. That was long ago.
Today, open source projects are leading innovation. Just one example is the NoSQL phenomenon, a collection of simpler databases that exploded onto the scene this last year. Projects like Cassandra, MongoDB, CouchDB, Neo4J, and a number of other cousins compete for the attention of website engineers who need to store tons of data without the messy requirement that the tables be accurate and consistent.
Projects like these are long-running experiments and crucial pieces of infrastructure. They may not be ready for running a bank, but they're strong enough and fast enough to handle the lightweight data storage chores from the modern social Web.
This sort of innovation is found throughout the open source world. To channel the power of distributed computing, companies are turning to Hadoop first, not some commercial provider, because the cost of experimentation is so low. The source code is ready for study, and changes are relatively easy to make.
The role of labor and cash in open source
Ah, but if the new projects driving innovation are open source and free for all, the projects aren't exactly charity. Business concerns are tightly intertwined with these projects and many other prominent names. Facebook built Cassandra itself and released it to the world. This was a nice gesture, but it was hardly a sacrifice. By sharing all of the code, Facebook attracted the attention and contributions of many others around the world, all laboring to build a better version that Facebook can, in turn, use inside. Facebook is cutting its development costs by splitting them with the others.
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