FreeBSD Contributor Mocks Gloomy Predictions for the Open Source Movement

In Communications of the ACM,/em>, long-time FreeBSD contributor Poul-Henning Kamp mocks the idea that the free and open-source software has “come apart” and “will end in tears and regret.”

Economists and others focused on money — like my bank — have had a lot of trouble figuring out the free and open source software (FOSS) phenomenon, and eventually they seem to have reached the conclusion that it just makes no sense. So, they go with the flow. Recently, very serious people in the FOSS movement have started to write long and thoughtful opinion pieces about how it has all come apart and will end in tears and regret. Allow me to disagree…

What follows is a humorous history of how the Open Source movement bested a series of ill-conceived marketing failures starting after the “utterly bad” 1980s when IBM had an “unimaginably huge monopoly” — and an era of vendor lock-in from companies trying to be the next IBM:

Out of that utter market failure came Minix, (Net/Free/Open)BSD, and Linux, at a median year of approximately 1991. I can absolutely guarantee that if we had been able to buy a reasonably priced and solid Unix for our 32-bit PCs — no strings attached — nobody would be running FreeBSD or Linux today, except possibly as an obscure hobby. Bill Gates would also have had a lot less of our money…

The essay moves on to when “that dot-com thing happened, fueled by the availability of FOSS operating systems, which did a much better job than any operating system you could buy — not just for the price, but in absolute terms of performance on any given piece of hardware. Thus, out of utter market failure, the FOSS movement was born.”

And ultimately, the essay ends with our present day, and the phenomenon of companies that “make a business out of FOSS or derivatives thereof…”

The “F” in FOSS was never silent. In retrospect, it seems clear that open source was not so much the goal itself as a means to an end, which is freedom: freedom to fix broken things, freedom from people who thought they could clutch the source code tightly and wield our ignorance of it as a weapon to force us all to pay for and run Windows Vista. But the FOSS movement has won what it wanted, and no matter how much oldsters dream about their glorious days as young revolutionaries, it is not coming back; the frustrations and anger of IT in 2024 are entirely different from those of 1991.

One very big difference is that more people have realized that source code is a liability rather than an asset. For some, that realization came creeping along the path from young teenage FOSS activists in the late 1990s to CIOs of BigCorp today. For most of us, I expect, it was the increasingly crushing workload of maintaining legacy code bases…

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