Will the Future of Software
be Open Source?
Tracing the course of influential computing developments
and considering possible paths to new paradigms.
IF ONE WAS forecasting the future of software today, it is likely that open source software
(OSS) would figure prominently in most projections. Indeed,
open source zealots might expect to
see OSS everywhere, with “innovation
networks” abounding, Microsoft humbled, and Linux on every desktop. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on it.
ILLUSTRATION BY CELIA JOHNSON
Historians are cautious about forecasting the future, with good reason.
They know that when technical experts
gaze into the crystal ball, they usually
extrapolate well but fail to spot those
discontinuities that can transform a
technology. One such attempt at futurology was the book The Future of Software, published in 1995.a The book
included contributions from leading
experts in the field. They correctly extrapolated that PCs would become
more powerful, numerous, pervasive,
and software would proliferate to fill
the applications vacuum. That was
correct to a point, but their collective
a Leebeart, D. Ed., The Future of Software. MIT
Press, Cambridge, MA, 1995.
take on new software development
methods and technologies was wide
of the mark. One contributor forecast
that visual programming by ordinary
users would herald the “fall of software’s aristocracy.” Another predicted
the maturing of the software factory,
by which our “craft industry” would
be transformed “toward Ford-style
mass production.” Another contributor expected to see stunning advances
in natural language interfaces. What
no contributor foresaw, or even mentioned, was the impact of open source
software and development techniques.
At the very moment they were making
their projections, Linux was under
their nose but they could not see it.
The idea of open source software
goes back to the very dawn of computing, when the mainframe computer
was getting established in the early
1950s. At that time, and for many years
after, IBM and the other computer
manufacturers gave their software
away for free—software was seen largely as a marketing initiative that made
their hardware more saleable. Software
was supplied in both source and object
code form because some people found
the source code useful and there was no
reason not to let them have it. Where
manufacturers’ provision fell short,
cooperative user groups, such as IBM’s
SHARE, coordinated the writing and
free distribution of programs. When
it came to applications, computer users wrote their own or hired a “software
contractor,” such as the Computer Sciences Corporation or Electronic Data
Systems, to write software for them.
There was a radical transformation
in the software world in 1964, with the