Open Source

Open computing is dead (long live open computing!)

What went wrong on the journey to the open future, and does open have a place in the future of computing?

Once upon a time there was something called the "Open Source Movement," proponents of which envisioned a utopian future. The story went that consumers and businesses would choose everything from their desktop operating system to their network routing software from a plethora of freely available options. They might even tweak one of these tools to engender a minor improvement or make it more suitable for their particular environment, and that tweak would then be shared out of the kindness of their hearts, or through a contractual agreement through one of the high-minded sounding distribution agreements that accompanied open source code. Our computing future would be ruled by gifted and benevolent software developers rather than greedy corporations, and our various open source applications would happily interact with each other over open networks, using open standards.

A funny thing happened on the way to the open computing future, however, in that vendors and consumers alike voted with their wallets for closed systems, in many cases seemingly adopting a stance of "the more closed the better." Despite repeated attacks, Microsoft remains the dominant computing platform in the enterprise space, reigning over desktops and large swaths of the data center. On the increasingly important mobile front, the industry leader Apple is a poster child for closed systems, controlling hardware, operating system, and application distribution with an iron fist. Android, which was supposed to save us from the supposed bane of closed systems, sports a closed device as its most popular tablet: the Amazon Kindle Fire, a heavily modified and buttoned-down Android tablet designed to sell Amazon content rather than showcase open standards. So, what went wrong on the journey to the open future, and does open have a place in the future of computing?

Open computing's stack problem

Technically minded folks love talking about "stacks" when discussing various computing architectures, referring to the various components, from low level to high level, that deliver an application or computing service. A stack might refer to the low-level network protocols used by an application, the corresponding development tools, the application itself, and its associated data. Open computing has traditionally had great success in the supporting roles of most application stacks. We'd presumably be lost without the TCP/IP network protocol that underlies the Internet and the vast majority of corporate networks, just as the web itself would be a shadow of itself without open source applications that provide database and web servers in the guise of projects like Apache and MySQL. These support applications, while critical to the overall service, remain mercurial background players to most modern applications. While an average user might interact with dozens of Apache and MySQL servers in an afternoon's work, he or she would likely return a blank stare when asked what they knew about these applications.

Similarly on the enterprise front, Linux-based code is likely present in many of the devices that adorn the server racks of most data centers, yet the underlying open source elements are buried in the depths of the application stack. The network admin and purchasing departments care little about the open source code that made the device possible, and credit the name on the shiny box with the underlying innovations.

At the end of the day, open computing has never been able to create a successful, integrated computing environment. The best open operating systems like Ubuntu are speedy and pretty, and come with a raft of applications that easily bests offerings from Microsoft or Apple. Once you get beyond the impressive checklist of features, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Ubuntu is a collection of bundled components rather than an integrated computing experience, a problem that is difficult to resolve when different teams or organizations are responsible for each component.

Will the open computing utopia ever exist, and what does this mean for CIOs?

The annals of technology history are littered with billion-dollar companies that were unable to internally integrate hardware, software, and applications, eventually leading to their demise. This is no easy task, and one that a movement that's designed to be independent and leaderless will likely never succeed at. This doesn't mean that we should write off open source; some of the greatest computing innovations have originated from this movement and, at its finest, open source has provided unparalleled building blocks for modern applications at commodity or even zero cost.

Highly integrated "experiential" devices like mobile phones, desktops, and tablets, however, are not opportunities for open source to shine. Technology pundits love throwing stones at "closed" environments and "walled gardens," but in most cases these environments are the most tightly integrated and functional. Rather than joining a fruitless debate about open versus closed computing, evaluate available technologies in light of how they'll solve your business problem, rather than joining a borderline religious debate.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company, and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Patrick has...

113 comments
mcumbee
mcumbee

OpenSuse...even though the components come from different developers they do a good job of "pulling it together"

mcumbee
mcumbee

I would have to disagree with the dieing of Open Source particularly with the upcoming Windows 8 platform...I have used opensource desktops for over 15 years and currently use Suse....Open Source may not get the glitzy coverage of Apple and Microsomewhere but Android is a testimony to what can be done with it. As a hobbyist Apple will Never interest me due to their closed ecosystem. Microsoft should develop a gamer version of their OS...with less overhead requirements as it is the only thing that I use it for....any work..web....or hobby use is done with linux and BSD. There are things like Compiz that gives you an elegant multidesktop that Windows systems cannot compete with and I use on a regular basis...so ...In most distros samba works out of the box and having a mixed network is easy and usable(have that here too) and I hate to bring this up again but....I have 0 virus and malware issues...please review that number....0.....I have no concerns about on-line banking....stock account management....bill pay....etc. and as you have mentioned the Web runs on Apache...not Microsoft.....I would say not dead....but becoming a more elegant and easy to use alternative.

Knighthawk5193@Yahoo.com
Knighthawk5193@Yahoo.com

After being a Windows user for years (since Win.'95!!) and watching that company churn out the "same" OS and software with a new look to it.,...I finally jumped ship and tried out my very first Linux distro,...(Slackware!) and have since moved on to Fedora.....Ubuntu.....Mint....and PeppermintOS. I have not looked back. I have found that even though the four versions of Linux are developed by different groups of peolple in various locations throughout the world, it seems each distro has a "core" set of apps that mimic each other and are included with the distro, which already puts it head and shoulders over Microsoft, for the fact that I don't have to spend "extra" for apps that I use every day. (an Office suite, CD/DVD burning software, antivirus...etc.) I think the real reason the Open Source Computing movement hasn't moved forward is simply for the fact that it's too big. Just because Microsoft, or any other company for that matter can spit out less-than-spectacular software at an alarming rate, doesn't make it a superior company to open source, it just means that they have enough financial backing to get the raw materials needed to do that. If there was a way to get 1 to 2 billion into the hands of one of the developing communities of a Linux OS I'm almost certain they would handle it with intelligence and efficiency, but dollars make the doughnuts and not wishful thinking!

SHCA
SHCA

It comes down to this: when something goes wrong, who ya gonna call? and can they help you? With open-source, the answers are Nobody Knows, and NO

JCitizen
JCitizen

and especially on the fact that some modicum of standardization has been good for FOSS. I'm having less resistance from my clients in trying LiveCDs of Ubuntu or other well defined Linux distro. One only has to look at the veritable stampede to open source developed smart phones to see the future, and it is bright! Maybe Android is closed now, but it would never have existed without an open source background. Folks just want stability - what scares them is all the blizzard of distros peppering the field - it leads to confusion - I doubt most FOSS fans really want this to jell anyway, as they like to sniff and pontificate about their exclusivity. This just drives many of my clients away from FOSS, not toward it. Now when I explain to them that their very much loved Android came from that same community, it opens their eyes to the possibilities. I think the public is better primed than ever before for the big jump in computing - all it takes is a little stability. To make FOSS an OS for the people, you gotta have some consideration for the people.

tbostwick
tbostwick

Good points to be made here - and if the "open" community would STOP building offshoots, sprouts, and derevations from anything resembling normalcy that would help as well. Open used to mean anything LAMP - and although that term can still be used, you now have a House of Flavors when it comes to describing the combinations and possibilities (which has benifitted folks who dev in .NET, SQL and MS server land) Add strange beasts like HADOOP and NoSQL into the mix - and resurgence of UD/UniVerse on Linux platforms - who can make any informed choice as to which to settle on. In the "open" world, many are at the behest of hobby-programmers that build for fun and show and not for a paycheck - and they come and go as often as a stormfront so don't rely on stability/continuity in your business model if you choose these paths.

TownsendA
TownsendA

If open anything does not work who do you go to for a fix? Its easier to get on the phone and tell the vendor who you gave good money to to sort it out asap. Try that with open whatever.

rmycroft2000
rmycroft2000

I have worked recently with MySQL, PostgresSQL, Mongo, Hadoop, Firefox, Linux, Arduino based systems all of which hew to the open source model. I work as a consultant and so get to see what is going on in lots of companies in a relatively short period of time. And the ultimate open source based OS that is out there big time? Android. And according to an article I read not too long ago 3 out of 5 enterprise server OS installs are Linux, not Windows. So while open source may not be showing up on the execs laptop, it is very much a factor in nearly everything else. And Mr. Patrick appears to be a one man, executive level consultant based in the happening state of South Carolina. Not exactly a source I would give much credence at first blush.

jim.love
jim.love

As Mark Twain said. Oh come on . I'm using tons of open source software. It's part of an eco-system with some payment and some which has tried to recoup some payments with donations. My Linux server, by virtualized Xen environment, wikipedia and so on and so on..... No - open source did not take over the world (yet). But it is a viable alternative and a practical one for many people. We are not all sixties drop outs singing Kumbaya. We are supporters of a serious techical alternative. Live with it.

gmichaels
gmichaels

I, for one, hate the Microsoft Monopoly. Every day I have to fight with old OS's such as Windows 2000 because my company cannot upgrade the main PC which houses our databases and CAD/CAM software. The machines that the PC controls do not have XP drivers available, and it is unpredictable what would happen upon upgrade. Commercial plotters and printers are key to our business, and we don't have the capital to upgrade everything, just to hang on in this economy! So I stick with Firefox because it runs on more PCs there. I've noticed that even Firefox is dropping support for Windows 2000 because they are upgrading to a new Visual Studio compiler. Give me a product that runs all of the business software I need, is rock solid, security-wise and doesn't need constant updates. Oh -- PLUS an interface that doesn't change with every release (from Windows 2000 to Windows 8, plus Microsoft Office and its "dynamic ribbon." This is what I would have hoped "open source" software could do. It's nice to have Open Office to open .docx and .xlsx files that I get sent, but a truly flexible, open source system will only be a pipe dream. It's all about throwing money at a problem, then doing it again in a few years when the software becomes obsolete.

morourke
morourke

Patrick, Be well in your opinion. It is opinion, is it not? If it is journalism, state some hard facts. Oh, no worries from here. I deal with MS based stuff all the time at the corporate level. And then they let us veterans cast that out. Then it works, flawlessly. Yes, in Unix land. I really do think you're bloviating here. Send me your response, no worries. Btw, your Ajaxian dictionary doesn't and that is nearly what bloviate means. Wow, I used to think there was some sense here. Notta. morourke@theworld.com

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

four versions of Windows had been tried out on Linux systems first and then the code copied for Microsoft to use it on their systems.

dconnolly
dconnolly

To make an architected computing environment it takes a LOT of work (hence money), managment, time effort and risk tolerance. Especially in a fast paced changing world. This is not a technical issue, it is a funding / business issue. The only way open flourishes is if it is a true business model with all the development, support (and design resources) for the next iteration.

cwarner7_11
cwarner7_11

A while back, visiting a contractor with whom I was corroborating, I happened to glance at her computer screen, and commented, "Oh, I see you use Ubuntu, too!" She responded, "I haven't the slightest idea what you are talking about. All I know is I used to have a lot of problems with my computer until a friend of mine came in and fixed it. Now, everything just works." That is probably a common attitude in the "consumer" market. I personally use primarily a distro called CAELinux, an integrated engineering software package built on Ubuntu. On the same computer, I have a version of Fedora optimized for electrical/electronic engineers, that I will boot up on occasion for specific projects. I have a couple of other Linux flavors on the same computer (changing occasionally, as I like exploring new options). But, the real reason I use Linux is that it has significantly reduced the amount of time I need to dedicate to system maintenance. If I break the system with my experimenting, it is trivial to wipe the sector and reload the operating system- usually a matter of hours, compared to more than a week to get my old Windows systems back up and running (which were more often broken by malware or MS updates rather than my own experimentation). Updates? With Linux, trivial. With Windows, I always cringed when updating, because it was almost a sure bet that the update was going to break some third party package on which I depended... However, I must encourage you to continue spouting the "Open Source is Dead" line. The more people who believe this, the greater my competitive advantage...

tmuhlen
tmuhlen

Obviously MS FUD. Open src is still around. It's the core of OSX, Android, iOS, chrome. The LAMP stack is still the overwhelming majority of deployments on the web. Open standards will be the only way to survive the mass exodus from the closed standards of windows and proprietary API's. My TV is running Android and the TiVo or any other DVR is using Linux. Our security cameras, routers, and every computing device that we have is running some form of open source OS. This movement is still very active and open is winning... you can tell how soon the Vista 2.0 release is coming by the FUD that's being put out.

rgeiken
rgeiken

I downloaded and installed a copy of Ubuntu 12.04 on my ASUS Eee PC just to try it out. I put it on an 8 gig thumb drive, and after hours of installation, when I tried to launch it, I needed to supply the password that I couldn't remember. I have found a way around that, but still have to implement it. I have heard so much about Linux, that though that I would try it out. Also tried to install Android 4.0.3 ICS on my Netbook too, and it installs as CD application which means that you cannot store any information. Computer language in general is way too complicated, and Microsoft has not made it any easier. If you want to have W7, Ubuntu, and Android on the same machine, it should not be so difficult to do. One thing for sure, you have to put them each on a separate partition or you will be in big trouble. Also installing to a thumb drive allows you to try it out, but at a real price in convenience. Effectively each time you turn it on, you have to start from scratch.

Jeff7181
Jeff7181

Let me first say I don't think open source is bad. I have several Linux VM's that I play around with. But, I don't necessarily think it's better than closed source and in some cases its worse. Open Office is a really nice office suite and for the most part, conversion between documents created in Open Office and documents created in Microsoft Office is pretty good, but not perfect. So why waste your time with a piece of software that MAY render your documents incorrectly when opened by 90% of the rest of the world? In my world, it's worth $200 not to have to worry about that embarrassment. There are some pretty good (free) Linux distros out there now. However, there's a learning curve to go from Windows to Linux. I'm willing to bet, unless you already know Linux well, you'll spend at least a day configuring a new Linux install to work how you want it to and installing software and codecs to work with the files you want, etc. I don't know about you, but a whole day of my time is worth the $200 price tag on a retail version of Windows. But lets say you spend $400 and get the "Ultimate" version of Windows and you stay on that version for 3 years. That's $133.33 per year... $11.11 per month... $0.37 per day. Is it really worth saving that 37 cents per day? To me it's not.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

It's already out there and Apple's UNIX is fully certified.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

to be prepared to become knowledgeable and you have to be prepared to contribute if you want others to contribute and help you. Otherwise open is not what you want, what you want is something for nothing....

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

See the replies to TownsendA's "Get what you pay for", two branches up.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

resulted in getting bugs fixed or features added in a timely and personally relevant way? At least with source code in hand you have the option of DIY if you can't find paid support (which if you look isn't hard to find.)

raynebc
raynebc

I program for two open source applications. Neither of them are extremely complex, but I have no problem supporting users directly. Problems generally get fixed quickly.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

That's illegal in several states. In some countries it violates religious laws, and it certainly carries no weight at my famliy reunions.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Because you have the code sitting in front of you. Isn't that free market at it's best?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

That's what's done by the customers of IBM, Red Hat, and other companies in the open source support arena. You can complain to that closed source vendor; that doesn't mean they're going to change anything. Obviously, some are better than others, but they already have your money.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

the company for tech support. Even with a system from a vendor, you have to pay to ship it back or take it to their approved tech, and then they usually say it's not a warranty item and you have to pay anyway. SO you see an IT tech anyway and pay to get it set up.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

the metropolitan Charlotte area is about as technologically trendy as any other city in the eastern US. Fort Mill certainly is no farther behind the times than, oh, your average Atlanta suburb. Of course, all of this overlooks the remote work capabilities inherent in this Internet age. Assuming someone's skill level based on their stated current location is ill-advised.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Then you ruined a perfectly good post. By making an [i]ad hominem[/i] attack without doing your research–a quick look at a map would have told you that Fort Mill, SC is a suburb of the not-so-happening city of Charlotte, NC–you lead others to question your abilities.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Open standards will be the only way to survive the mass exodus from the closed standards of windows and proprietary API's." Uh, what exodus? Who's leaving? On the desktop, at least, Windows still has around 90% of both home and business installations.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

Want a good Linux version, try Zorin OS Linux as it's a lot easier to install and use and it has a range of GUIs so you can make it look like Windows if you want.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

as well as the functionality. Don't like the way something behaves? Change it. Can't do that with closed source.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

dearer than you claim and also a lot bigger than going from Windows to some variants of Linux. I have a new client who has been using Windows 2000 with MSIE 7, Office 97, Photoshop 5, and Outlook Express for many years as they do all they need. They were recently looking at a new computer and were horrified at how much it was going to cost them software wise as they need to replace ALL their software if they get a new system; even with Windows 7 with MSIE included, it doesn't have Outlook Express and it Office 2010 with Photoshop costs over a thousand dollars more - total bill nearly $3,000 for PC plus software and replacement peripherals as there's no Win 7 drivers for his older laser printer and scanner that still work. But the real horror for him was how huge the learning curve to use the Office Ribbon system. Needless to say he didn't buy a new system. After he was referred to me and we spoke about what he needs, I got him two year old ex lease higher end Dell on which I installed Zorin OS Linux with Libre Office, Gimp, Fire Fox, and Thunderbird. He was very happy as it looked so much like his old system while still being much faster. Also, the learning curve was next to nothing as all the new stuff had a similar look and feel to his old stuff he's used to. Mind you, I'm sure the learning curve between Vista and Win 7 is nothing, but few are upgrading just ONE level. Also a shift from the Win 2000/XP to the Win Vista / 7 means new peripherals and application.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

... since I know damn well Microsoft has a training center in Charlotte and a certain group of Systems Administrators I know are going there for higher-level IIS training next week.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

...I still have to say that Windows is the more complete install--from scratch. I've installed two different versions of Ubuntu Linux on different machines that were both readily internet accessible (Wi-Fi) through Windows and OS X (one of each). In both cases, the basic install went incredibly quickly and smoothly; obviously due to the much smaller footprint. On the other hand, both machines then had to be configured and Ubuntu had trouble with both of them configuring the specific Wi-Fi system in the two machines. Sure, they're both 802.11(x), but they both used different brand 'cards' and ended up requiring manual configuration before they could go online to download drivers for the rest of the internal hardware on the machines. In other words, while Ubuntu was obviously faster to install, Windows and OS X carried much more complete installs, though admittedly the old, white, G3 iBook obviously can't run the later iterations of OS X the way it can Ubuntu. And that kind of brings out the other drawback of Linux: While Linux is a great OS, a lot of the more current software relies on current video cards and newer processors. From what I've seen, you can handle legacy or current hardware, but you cant force current software to subsequently operate on legacy hardware all that well. Linux is great since it doesn't require massive overhead, but that means, again, that you have to search for and install the drivers for anything newer. The average consumer doesn't know that; doesn't want to know that; and wants the OS to do everything for itself--including support.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

They simply don't know how. They don't want to know, either.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

how many people care enough about making changes to go to the trouble of learning how? Paint and canvas may be cheap, but it's going to take a while to learn how to recreate the Mona Lisa.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

is every bit as jarring as the one from 2000 to 7. This could be a prime opportunity for Linux, but I still think it suffers from not being available pre-installed.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

in which rmycroft2000 used the phrase "the happening state of South Carolina".

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

I won't argue that the Windows install was slower--usually took about 2 hours to get it fully up and running even with older versions. But I never had to manually go out and find drivers for the specific internal or external devices I had on my PC, either. On the other hand, OS X usually didn't take any longer than Ubuntu to install from disk, and OS X also carried all the drivers it needed to run the Mac.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

On a pre-assembled system, the ease of installation is dependent on how easy the vendor has made finding the right drivers. Dell good, Toshiba okay, HP bad. It's been years since I've loaded W on a custom-bullt system. In some ways, it's easier to get the right drivers since you know exactly what you installed. However, you lost the advantage of the OEM making sure all the pieces play nice together.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

scratch, but every time I have, I've had more troubles getting it up to working that i have when installing Ubuntu, Kubuntu, or Zorin OS from scratch. The only time you need a driver for hardware with Linux is when the hardware in question has been designed to work out of the box with Windows and is NOR set up to use the Industry Standard Commands. By ISC hardware and you don't need any specific drivers - graphics cards are a little different in that most now have extra stuff on board that need their own drivers, but the basic graphics work great. I agree the average user wants the system delivered and all working, so that simply means someone else has to load it up and set it up for them, either at Dell, HP, or the local IT store.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Is there ever any down side to purchasing new tools? (Please don't tell my wife!) :)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It's no different from learnng how to work on your car or build your own furniture. Sure, you can learn how, but is it worth the payoff? Is it worth whatever other activities you'll sacrifice while you learn, or the money you'll spend on the tools?

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

... since apps like OpenOffice and Gimp came out because of MSOffice and Photoshop. I've tried both and I still keep OpenOffice as a backup on my Mac because it has the capability to open files from long-gone applications--though all it does is open them with all the formatting commands converted to text. At least I'm able to harvest the old unformatted text out of the 50 or so pages of commands.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

But there is a difference between not wanting to do something and not being able to do it. That is the difference between closed and open source. It's also why closed source works as a model. And there is nothing wrong with just being interested in functionality. Open Source works because there are people who want to push boundaries, learn new things and basically go where no one has gone before. And they are the ones the closed source critters watch closely to get ideas from :).

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

if you have source code you have options. If you don't have source code you don't have options. With regards to your analogy above your precondition of "no sense of context" falls apart as soon as you acknowledge that someone, somewhere could read to you. (if they can do that they can also teach you to fish if you so desire :))

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Imagine you gave me a book, but I didn't know the words "The, I, and, but" and didn't have any sense of context to puzzle them out. That limits the benefit of my having the book, or the source code. Sure, it didn't cost me anything, but I may have to pay someone to read portions to me to get full benefit.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Because some folks think Open Source means a free lunch rather than freedom of expression. Even the article author uses the term "freely available" in a monetary rather than an intellectual/knowledge sense. Imagine if I gave you a pencil and paper, but said you couldn't use the words "The, I, and, but". You don't have to be a famous writer or painter to realize that limits your communication options. :)

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

via Dell on-line and then only on a few very low end systems or servers. The problem is getting it as an alternative on ALL the Dell and HP lines and readily available in the retail stores. Heck, I've seen people walk out of the retails stores since the sales staff knew nothing about Linux and the client wanted Linux.