We never should have doubted that open would beat out free in developers’ hearts and minds.

For well over a decade, free software licenses like the GPL have slid even as Apache-style licensing has climbed. Why? Because developers are not building religions. They’re building businesses.

Now, in a comprehensive, 50,000-strong Stack Overflow developer survey, it’s evident that not only are developers eschewing freedom-forcing licenses in their software, they’re also avoiding freedom-loving operating systems as they develop their products. Developers, in short, are driven by pragmatism, and need to be courted as such.

Linux falls behind, as Mac OS X claims second

While Windows has long claimed the affection of 50% or more of developers, we may see Windows fall below 50% by 2017. This isn’t due to an exodus to Linux, however.

Rather, it’s due to a marked increase in developers running Mac OS X as their development platform. This trend has been underway for some time — I first wrote about it in 2007 — but it’s only been recently that Mac OS X has displaced Linux as the second-most popular development environment, and in a big way (Figure A).

Figure A

By comparison, just three years back, while Mac OS X was knocking on Linux’s door, both were a ways off from seriously competing with Windows (Figure B).

Figure B

On the one hand, this evidences a shift away from Microsoft to alternatives. But it’s clearly not a shift away from closed to open, as one might expect from increasingly open source-friendly developers.

No, it’s a pragmatic shift to a beautiful, functional experience that “just works,” while giving developers quick access to the power of UNIX through the Terminal. Developers, in short, can get geeky (like Linux) without having to wade through a subpar design aesthetic. Even among Linux users we see this yearning, as design-centric Ubuntu wins over 12.3% of Linux users, compared to Fedora (1.4%), Mint (1.7%), and Debian (1.9%).

Religious about “getting stuff done”

Christopher Tozzi tries to put a pretty face on this shift away from Linux:

[I]n a way, the fact that more programmers are moving toward Mac OS X — even though the importance of GNU/Linux as a hosting environment remains steady — is a good thing for the open source community. It implies that developers can program for Linux-based platforms without having to run Linux themselves. That’s a reflection of the growth of cross-platform compatibility in recent years, as the expansion of the cloud and the open-sourcing of proprietary platforms even by the likes of Microsoft has made it much easier to program for any type of environment, no matter which one you’re using locally.

This is true, but it only hints at the larger trend underlying the data: Developers are practical. They have jobs to do, and must build and iterate on apps at an ever-accelerating pace. This means using software that presents minimal barriers to adoption, and releasing code under the same principle.

Just ask the GitHub generation, the ever-younger developers that have apparently even moved beyond open source to simply releasing code…with no license attached.

Uber-developers like Doug Cutting, creator of Apache Hadoop and Lucene, puts it this way: “To me it’s more common sense than following any particular creed. I want to help create software that people use, that’s useful. I like to do this together with other people.” The more developers need to play nicely with others, the more they’re going to reject political licensing decisions.

How does this apply to you?

For every business that depends on software — and this is every business today — developers are a gift that will keep on giving. These “new kingmakers,” as RedMonk’s Stephen O’Grady has called them, help build and extend a company’s products, making it more relevant to a wider population of users than any individual company can reach alone.

To appeal to these developers, enterprises must engage them on their terms. That’s open source, permissive licensing. It’s development environments like Mac OS X. It’s cloud like Amazon Web Services. It’s what works, and with a minimum of fuss.