The Inevitability of Open Source

I recently attended POSSCON as part of my day-job. I don't usually blog directly about this kind of stuff ("You like to keep your church and state separate," a fellow attendee said, which fits.) But, I had a number of awesome conversations with the speakers, attendees and sponsors, that may spawn a series of brief posts here. POSSCON is a regional open source convention that drew developers, leaders of informational technology departments, and IT consultants of various types.

I had a number of conversations that revolved around the adoption of open source in opposition to proprietary systems. People asked questions like "what do we have to do to get more people to use open source software?" and many people apologized for doing work with proprietary software for mostly economic reasons (e.g. "I have a .NET development job," or "people need windows administration and I can't turn away work.")

This led me to have one of three reactions:

1. Working with any specific (proprietary) technology, particularly because you have to make ends meet should never require excusing. There are cases where "working with proprietary technology," may more like "building a business model on proprietary technology," and that sort of thing needs to be watched out for, but I don't think it's morally ambiguous to make a living.

2. I'm not sure that the success of technology, particularly open source, is determined solely on the basis of adoption rates. Successful technology is technology that efficiently allows people/cyborgs to do work, not overwhelmingly ubiquitous technology.

3. In many many contexts, open source technology has triumphed over proprietary alternatives: Linux-based systems are the dominant UNIX-like operating system. OpenSSH is the dominant SSH implementation (and remote terminal protocol/implementation). Darwin/FreeBSD is incredibly successful (as Mac OS X.) Other domains where open source packages have very high (dominating) adoption rates: OpenSSL, gcc, perl/python/php/ruby (web development), Apache/Lighttpd/nginx (web servers) etc.

While I think the end-user desktop isn't unimportant, I think there may be merit in playing to the strengths of open source (servers, infrastructure, developers.) Additionally, it seems more productive to have the discussion about "how do we advance open source," couched in terms of a battle for technological dominance in which open source has already won.

And Free Software/Open Source has won. While there remain sectors and domains where non-free software remains prevalent and business models that don't value user's freedom, I think that most people who know anything about technology will say that all paths forward lead toward a greater level of software freedom.

Maybe this is a symptom of the situation in which I work and maybe I'm being too optimistic, but I don't think so. Thoughts?

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