When Netscape released its Web browser’s source code to the public in 1998, it seemed like a Hail Mary move for a company embattled by Microsoft.
Now barely a week goes by without a commercial tech company announcing the launch of a new platform, app or extension—and its source code. Among them is Microsoft, a company whose then-CEO, Steve Ballmer, called the open-source Linux operating system a “cancer” in 2001.
The emergence of companies like Facebook, Airbnb, and Square, whose businesses lie outside the world of commercial software, as players in open source is particularly interesting. While they may follow the principles that underpin traditional open source software like Linux, the reasons for their openness are not simply altruism and the greater good.
Releasing open source boosts their image as innovators, helping them recruit engineers. It also helps create de facto standards, as startups adopt their way of writing code. And in some cases, it may accelerate the development of entire industries.
Here are the big-picture trends that are driving open source forward in 2016—and beyond.
Open Source Creates New Industries
In 2014, Tesla Motors, the electric-car maker, gave away its entire patent portfolio, providing those using it promised not to engage in courtroom battles over intellectual property. While General Motors rebuffed Tesla’s offer, the potential consequences of this are an increase in electric-car innovation across the automotive industry, meaning more electric cars, more infrastructure for them, and more consumers interested in buying them—including from Tesla.
Open Source Will Make Machines Smarter
Likewise, in November Google launched TensorFlow, an open-source platform for machine learning. TensorFlow was originally developed by researchers and engineers working on the Google Brain team conducting machine learning and deep neural-networks research. The core is written in C++, but it has a Python front end.
In a similar area, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and a team of experts in open machine learning recently announced the creation of a billion-dollar not-for-profit company artificial research company, Open AI:
As a nonprofit, our aim is to build value for everyone rather than shareholders. Researchers will be strongly encouraged to publish their work, whether as papers, blog posts, or code, and our patents (if any) will be shared with the world. We’ll freely collaborate with others across many institutions and expect to work with companies to research and deploy new technologies.
Machine learning is a hard problem, made easier if advancements in the field are shared.
Open Source Makes Coders Happy
The altruistic notion of coders inspecting open source projects to fix bugs and add features dominates the image of open source. But reality is more complicated.
A programmer’s GitHub page has become a de facto résumé. By contributing to open-source projects, a coder can show off her chops and impress recruiters and hiring managers—without the trouble of an awkward interview.
As Tom Preston-Werner, cofounder of GitHub, put it:
If you’re hiring, the best technical interview possible is the one you don’t have to do because the candidate is already kicking ass on one of your open source projects. Once technical excellence has been established in this way, all that remains is to verify cultural fit and convince that person to come work for you.
It also has other professional and social benefits. One’s open-source contributions instantly explain one’s interests, serving as a calling card. Want to find a collaborator to work on a project? Just chat up someone who’s building up the same codebase as you. For Alvaro Videla, contributing to RabbitMQ, an application messaging broker, led to writing a book and getting invited to speak at conferences.
Open source isn’t an unalloyed good. There are downsides for both coders and companies who participate in projects, which I’ll address in future pieces. But it’s clear that the powerful driving forces that have placed open source at the center of software innovation will continue throughout this year—and for years to come.