Are We Approaching the End of Open Source?

New threats to open source emerge, casting doubts about its long-term future.

Christopher Tozzi, Technology analyst

August 29, 2023

6 Min Read
open source and commercial road signs
Alamy

For open source software, it's the best of times, and it's the worst of times.

It's the best of times because open source has never been as popular as it is today. GitHub reports that 97% of apps incorporate open source code, and nearly 80% of businesses today use open source.

It's the worst of times because open source faces unprecedented threats that cast its long-term future into doubt.

Allow me to explain by discussing the novel threats against open source software today, and the extent to which they might herald the end of open source as we know it.

In some ways, the idea that open source could be nearing its end might seem plainly outlandish. By many measures, open source is more alive and well than ever.

Long gone are the days when Microsoft's CEO labeled Linux a "cancer" and invested in technical and legal initiatives designed to snuff out open source. Today, nearly a decade after declaring its "love" for Linux, Microsoft has become a major contributor to leading open source projects.

open source statistics

open-source

Gone, too, are the times when proving the value of open source software was an uphill battle. It's not an overstatement to say that the majority of developers and business leaders today recognize the intrinsic benefits of open source. They realize that the challenges open source presents — like the security risks that lurk in some open source codebases — are outweighed in most cases by the flexibility and non-existent licensing costs of the typical open source project.

Related:Is Terraform Still Open Source? It Depends Whom You Ask

And then there's the fact that for certain needs, open source platforms are the only real solution available today because the closed source world lacks true alternatives. There's no real closed source equivalent to Kubernetes, for example; if you want to operate containerized applications at scale, you're going to use open source software (or, at a minimum, a service like AWS EKS, which is mostly open source) in 99% of the cases today. The same could be said about open source platforms like WordPress, which has some proprietary alternatives but whose share of the CMS market is so enormous that closed source competitors barely register.

In short, open source is more popular and pervasive than ever. Even for companies that would have never touched open source code 10 years ago, open source has become almost unavoidable today.

Challenges That Threaten to End Open Source

Viewed from a different perspective, though, we are living in dark times for open source software. Several new threats have converged to cast doubt upon where open source is headed in the future.

Related:A Beginner's Guide to GitHub: What You Need To Know

Generative AI

For starters, take the generative AI boom. I've argued previously that generative AI presents a threat to open source because most open source communities lack the financial resources required to train effective generative AI models at scale. They can write the code that powers those models, but they can't easily acquire the massive data sets necessary to train the models or the compute power necessary to perform the training.

True, there have been some efforts to build open source alternatives to tools like ChatGPT. Meta's LLaMa project, which provides open source communities with trained large language models, is probably the best example.

But the downside of initiatives like these is that they are dominated by large tech companies, which runs counter to the spirit of open source. If open source developers are beholden to the likes of Meta to provide them with the models and data training they need to build open source alternatives to ChatGPT — a tool that is itself controlled by a proprietary software company whose name is an insult to open source — they haven't gained much.

Open source paywalls

A second worrying development in the realm of open source was Red Hat's decision this summer to make the source code for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, a leading Linux distribution, available only to paying customers.

That move was reasonable enough from a business perspective; Red Hat wants to make money, and it's free to do so in whichever ways it sees fit. But by effectively paywalling source code, Red Hat — a company that was absolutely central to creating the modern open source ecosystem — has changed one of the fundamental dynamics of open source. Instead of being freely available, the RHEL source code requires developers to pay a fee, setting a precedent that could spread to other projects.

What if developers had to pay to access the source code for Kubernetes, MySQL, or the Apache Web server, for example? I suspect that such a requirement would stunt adoption of those open source solutions and throw key open source communities into chaos. 

Cloud computing

Widespread adoption of cloud computing — and, in particular, software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery models — has complicated the future of open source, too. The reason why is simple: When users depend on applications hosted in the cloud, it doesn't really matter whether they can access the applications' source code or not. They don't have control over the applications because they don't have control over the host environment.

This, too, fundamentally changes a traditional dynamic of open source and undercuts the idea that part of the core value of open source software lies in the ability of users to inspect and modify how their software works.

This isn't a new issue; people like Richard Stallman, who gave birth to the type of software we now call open source (Stallman prefers the term "free software" and contends that open source has a different meaning), warned about cloud computing's impact on open source years ago. But it's still a real and present challenge to open source operating models today.

Predicting the Future of Open Source

Open source has seen its share of deep challenges before, and it has always prevailed. It's not unreasonable to take the optimistic view that open source communities will innovate ways to thrive in the face of the new challenges they face from generative AI, the paywalling of source code, and the cloud.

But it's also not unreasonable to adopt a pessimistic viewpoint and worry that open source today has become so completely divorced from its original form that the end of open source — at least as we've traditionally known it — is nigh.

To be sure, open source code is probably not going anywhere. But more than ever, control over open source will lie in the hands of a small set of large companies — like those that decide to release open source generative AI models or make their source code available for a fee. The idea that open source is a way to gain efficiency and flexibility by allowing anyone to view, modify, and redistribute source code feels more remote today than at any point in the past.

I love open source, and I hope I'm just being overly pessimistic about its current state. But I also hope that if I'm not, open source communities will find ways to work around the deep challenges they face today and ensure that the spirit of open source as a community-centered endeavor does not die.

About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

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