Once upon a time: corporations that feared their business, that saw themselves threatened by products that everyone can get for free. Anyone can even change it, just as it is best for the purpose. What scared them so much: Open Source Software. And so they resisted. But – even if this is still not very well known to the general public – they have lost this fight.
“The modern world would not exist without open source,” says Mike Milinkovich. The Canadian is the managing director of the Eclipse Foundation, one of the most important platforms for the development of open source software. What he means, for example: “The business models of large cloud providers such as Amazon, or those of Facebook, Google and Twitter, would not work without open source software.” Since 2009 at the latest, open source software has been of strategic importance for the entire industry, says Milinkovich.
The corporations did not have remorse, they followed a simple necessity
The IBM group had been aware of this for a long time and recently even bought the largest open source company in the world, Red Hat. Microsoft, which is still the largest software company in the world, took a little longer, but at least since Satya Nadella became chief there has been a radical swing. Microsoft is now heavily involved in open source projects, opening its own products for collaboration with them. Microsoft, whose co-founder Bill Gates helped to enforce the software license model, whose longtime boss Steve Ballmer even called Linux “cancer”, this Microsoft recently even bought the open source platform Github, where developers store their software projects and the worldwide community.
The corporations, however, had not suddenly felt remorse, rather they followed a simple necessity. Because a fundamental change has taken place in the world of IT. The companies realized more and more that open source software offers the possibility to build a kind of basic service, a community base on which their own products are based. Open source is no longer about getting software that can do something similar to commercial software for free.
The logic behind it is actually quite simple. It would be far too expensive if every company had to reinvent or rent this base for themselves. “The business model has changed dramatically,” says Thomas Dohmke, who is responsible for special projects at Github, from the so-called Wintel alliance of Microsoft’s Windows and Intel processors to a service-oriented company. Microsoft sees Github as the center of the software lifecycle. Every change to the source code of a software is documented, there are troubleshooting aids, a wiki and many other tools that help developers to work with their colleagues around the world. The basis for Github, the version management system Git, was invented by Linus Torvalds, to whom the world also owes the Linux operating system.
However, some companies still tend to offer all-round carefree packages, so they try to bind customers to their own universe. Indeed, the world’s largest independent open source company, Suse, with its headquarters in Nuremberg, sees independence from manufacturers of commercial software as an opportunity to get a portion of the pie: “We are independent of a specific agenda,” says the head of marketing Ivo Totev, “we don’t have to push anything.” Totev is no longer aware of the resentment towards open source software that was often felt earlier. “The customers don’t go into it anymore,” he says, “they see it more positively, for example the increased transparency.” Open source is now also part of the system, for example with artificial intelligence.
Andreas Engel, who heads the Suse business in Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa, still knows the times when many thought open source, everyone could participate, everyone can just download it. “Now it is recognized that open source companies are driving innovation.” This affects, for example, working with so-called containers. These are self-contained work environments, like a computer in a computer. Only that the containers have access to a common operating system. This technology has been growing rapidly for several years.
But it is also about the Linux operating system, which due to its flexibility is ideally suited to serve as a system for machines, one speaks of embedded Linux. Google’s Android mobile operating system is also based on Linux. Even when it comes to collecting and processing the data from production plants close to the machines – the technical term here is edge computing – the open source system Linux is ideally suited. These are the most important areas for Suse, which has existed for 28 years.
Open source is involved in 90 percent of all software projects today
At Suse, one sees one’s own independence as a great advantage, because the IT world is very diverse, and many customers wanted to use this diversity for themselves and not bind themselves to one or only a few providers. “The customers want to move the workloads back and forth,” says Ivo Totev from Suse, “but it should always feel the same.” In less IT terms: Companies want to store or process tasks in the cloud that are best suited for the respective purpose. But that is often difficult because the respective providers do not always make it easy for their customers to quickly switch to a competitor. Suse offers a kind of mediation platform for this. It no longer matters to the customer which provider is on the other end.
The parties in the Munich City Council even wrote in their coalition agreement to give open source priority over products whose source code is only known to the manufacturer. When it comes to digitizing the education sector, there is a constant demand that the field not be left to the large digital corporations, but instead should be based on open source.
Some companies recognized the potential of open source early on and are important players in the open source community. SAP, for example, has been a partner of the Eclipse Foundation from the very beginning. By contrast, a decade and a half ago, Bosch was not at all enthusiastic about the idea of making its own developments available to others. The group is now one of the most important code suppliers on the Eclipse platform. But at many other companies, for example, Mike Milinkovich from the Eclipse Foundation and others still have to do a lot of persuasion. Milinkovich’s main arguments: Open source is safe because many eyes can see the source code, it enables cooperation, saves money and enables products to be brought to market faster.
Open source software is at least involved in most of today’s software projects, Thomas Dohmke speaks of 90 percent. Around two thirds of the members of the Eclipse Foundation already come from Europe, most of them from Germany. 170 companies are members of the foundation, 900 companies are considered committers, so they write code and make it available on the Eclipse platform. Thanks to its increased presence in Europe, the foundation hopes to attract additional members and to manage interesting projects.
But how ready is the EU for this? “It gets better,” says Mike Milinkovich, “but it could be better.” He firmly believes that open source can help. “The power of open source shows when you create something together.”