Open source is winning.

Yeah, I said it. But it’s not what you think it means.

Look at all the computing devices that people use around you. Phones, laptops, desktops, TVs, whatever. How many of those do you look at, and think “that’s an open source product”. Probably very few. Unless you were one of the insane enough to buy an OpenMoko.

But if you peel away one layer a majority of the cool new products out there are built on open source in one way or another. iPhone, Android, Chrome, the linux stack that runs your tv, or your Tivo, your Facebook, Twitter, or Google.

When it comes to technology building blocks, open source has achieved the revolution that it has always promised. It has allowed countless companies to move faster and deliver more innovative products, because they can either re-use or re-adapt existing stuff so quickly. It has realized a virtuous symmetry of companies both benefiting from and contributing back improvements.

But why are many of these products not anything we would consider completely open source? Because products are about design, about control, about decisions, about trade-offs, about making choices that not everyone will agree on. If these are your requirements for success, your typical open source community is not going to cut it. Talk to any product developer at a any successful product company, and they will tell you of all the gut-wrenching, highly controversial decisions that must be made along the way. The kinds of decisions that make open source squabbles look like peanuts (OMG! pidgin has an auto-growing text field, let’s fork!). If every big product decision was resolved with a fork, there’d be thousands of Facebooks and Googles and OSX’s, no consistency, and far less value (Linux desktop distributions are a good case study). 

So the OSS community in general can give itself a nice pat on the back. You’ve won. Nobody in their right mind would build a technology stack from scratch any more. But extremists who push for absolutely every piece of everything being open source are simply missing the point. 

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