In celebrating the significant contributions Twitter, Facebook and other Web giants have made to open source, did ReadWrite fail to credit more traditional software vendors for their own contributions? That’s the accusation being leveled by some members of the open source business community. But is it fair?

When I Was A Kid, We Didn’t Have GitHub …

Not if you ask the enterprise software crowd. And you should. When many Web entrepreneurs were still finishing high school, the open source movement was going mainstream in enterprise computing. The first contenders were Linux and the Apache HTTP server, both of which owe a huge thanks to IBM, as Apache Software Foundation president Jim Jagielski calls out.

I still remember IBM’s provocative announcement in 2001 that it was putting $1 billion toward the development and promotion of Linux. While such billion-dollar commitments from IBM are now so routine as to be unremarkable, back then a billion dollars meant a lot. I was working for an embedded Linux vendor at the time, and most of our sales cycle was spent explaining why GPL-licensed Linux wasn’t the technology equivalent of terminal cancer. (Thanks in part to Microsoft’s contribution.)

But after IBM’s announcement, the world completely changed. Suddenly it was not only safe to use open source, but advisable. 

IBM thus paved the way for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world to grow up in a world that actually encouraged open source usage. So when Eclipse marketing director Ian Skerrett lauds IBM (and Red Hat) for its contributions …

 … he’s talking about more than merely code.

Raising A Generation Of Developers On Open Code

And yet I still think Lauren Orsini, who wrote the “offending” post, is right. She highlighted companies who were the most generous in contributing to open source, not necessarily the most voluminous. And that’s a crucial distinction.

Enterprise open source contributions are different from LinkedIn’s or Square’s. In IBM’s case, it is trying to create low-cost complements for its proprietary software, hardware and services.

As for Red Hat, it is the industry’s only billion-dollar pure-play open source software company. It, more than any other company, makes open source easy to consume within the enterprise. 

Both are compelling business strategies. But making money on open source feels smart and self-serving rather than generous. IBM and Red Hat’s contributions don’t feed developer productivity the way these newer contributors do.

If IBM and its peers like Red Hat helped to kickstart open source as a business reality, the new wave of Web giants is making it a developer reality.

Yes, I know that open source has always been about developers. Millions of projects have been born and died on Sourceforge, Codehaus and GitHub to prove that. But while IBM, HP, Red Hat and others have been rubbing shoulders with enterprise developers, often on the sell-side of software, Web companies like Facebook and Twitter are enabling a different class of developer.

While their work on Storm, Kafka, Hadoop and other open-source projects benefits the enterprise, they are really writing code that will allow developers to completely change what the enterprise means by making a world from data.

Red Hat has sought to rectify this by embracing CentOS, popular on developer-friendly OpenStack. It’s a good move. With OpenStack Red Hat has a chance to enable a significantly more agile enterprise. But will it thereby enable more data-driven enterprises? That remains to be seen.

The Future Of Open Source

Skerrett and Jagielski point out that “old school” companies like IBM don’t get the credit they deserve. They’re almost certainly right. As Skerrett notes, tongue firmly in cheek, all these boring old enterprise infrastructure companies do is “mak[e] sure the Internet keeps on running.” 

But it is the Web companies that are building data superstructure on the Internet. Do they owe a huge debt of gratitude to yesterday’s open source pioneers? Yes. But does this make it wrong to call them out for the exceptionally exciting work they’re doing enabling a new future built on data at unprecedented scale? No way.

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