How Open Source Is Changing Software Innovation

Al Gillen

Open-source software has come a long way. After a period of maturation, most visibly to the wider public during the late 1990s and early 2000s – during the early days of Linux – the approach to developing technology under an open-use license, also known as open-source software, has now become mainstream.

In recent years, we have seen many commercially focused companies put both existing intellectual property and new projects that are being incubated into open source. This trend has been particularly strong with software used by developers as platforms or tools. Today, the vast majority of developer tools and platforms are open source or derived from open-source technology.

As enterprises across industries rush headlong into digital transformation, many have begun to emulate tech industry practices in how they use and produce software innovation and have thus increased adoption of, and even contribution to, open source. So what are the benefits of open-source engagement for the enterprise? Here are six broad benefits of using and contributing to open source.

  1. Not re-inventing the wheel. The most obvious reason to use open-source software is to build software faster without having to re-implement solutions to already solved problems. Companies must move fast to stay at the top of their game – and that means grabbing the best solutions contributed by a well-honed ecosystem and building their own added innovation on top of it. Doing anything else is suboptimal and will ultimately lead to a more burdensome maintenance and update responsibility, and ultimately falling behind competitors. Contributing software customization and adding value back to the larger open-source community can bring the benefit of better vetting and quality improvement of the code by the community.
  1. Ensuring strategic safety. It used to be that IT organizations bought important software only from large, established software vendors. Open source innovation now allows smaller players to provide viable solutions while assuring the buyers that they can have control over the technical direction of the software, thus avoiding unreasonable price increases or unnecessary product changes, and minimizing the potential for lock-in. The broadening of software supplies also expands the range of software solutions available to enterprises and keeps the larger software vendors on their toes. Using software that builds on an open source code-base also allows enterprises to participate in the technology’s evolution and maintain more control over the destiny of the products based on this software.
  1. Efficient experimentation and business acceleration. In the age of digital transformation, experimentation is the new mantra. Digital disruptors like Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb have revolutionized their industries and put the accelerated startup culture on the map with the famous “fail fast and often in the past” mantra. Modern enterprises have finally come to realize that to survive the disruption and keep up, they must adopt as much of that experimental culture as possible and overcome their fears of failure. Experimentation of this kind implies a speed in product and service development that building software in-house simply cannot deliver. By taking existing code developed by others, and leveraging this code in new offerings, enterprises can truly speed up their product cycles. Open source provides the digital shoulders that enterprises can stand on to compete. By further contributing new value back to open source, enterprises have a chance of generating mindshare for their offerings, also known as free marketing.
  1. The efficiency of standardized practices. Using open-source solutions means using somewhat standardized (in a de facto sense) solutions to problems. Such standardization of software patterns related to certain industries and verticals enforces a normalized and more optimized set of organizational practices that tend to be portable across that industry. This practice can simplify business process and allow companies to focus on competitive differentiation, rather than wasting resources on things that are not core to their business success.
  1. Cleaner and safer software. Creating software in open source means that engineers operate in daylight, enabling them to avoid the traps of plagiarized software and more easily stay clear of patents and copyrights. Additionally, the visibility open source provides can lead to more secure software and fewer vulnerability surprises, especially if a significant community evolves around the project and performs regular critical reviews. Many companies that create proprietary software have difficulties turning their large code-bases into open source because of the time-consuming intellectual property and security scrubbing processes needed to open the code. Open source IP-based businesses avoid this problem from the get-go. Starting new software initiatives in open source avoids these IP issues.
  1. Attracting, retaining, and motivating top developer talent. Beyond a good pay scale and a supportive work environment, there is little that can push developers to do high-quality work more than peer approval and the opportunity for recognition or even fame. Contributing software back to the community and allowing developers to enjoy the public recognition of their peers can be a powerful motivator and an important tool for employee retention. A similar dynamic is in play in the hiring process as tech companies compete with each other to build their software engineering teams. Offering the opportunity to be visible in a broader developer community, or attain a level of peer recognition, is potentially more important than paying top wages for star developers.
  1. Community-led innovation. With a diverse group of vendors and customers participating in open source efforts, open-source solutions tend to rapidly add functionality relevant to the audience faster than proprietary solutions can typically achieve. As a result, open source adopters are able to influence prioritization of capabilities added to open-source initiatives and quickly accomplish goals specific to their environment.

For more on future-focused digital innovation, see Business Networks: The Platforms For Future Innovation.


Al Gillen

About Al Gillen

Al Gillen is As Group Vice President of Software Development and Open Source at IDC. He oversees IDC's software development research portfolio. Research disciplines in this group include developer research covering census, demographics and developer activities; platform and cloud application services for developers, and developer lifecycle and quality assurance products. In addition, Al jointly oversees IDC's DevOps research program, and runs a program focused on the ecosystem of open source software pan-industry. In his 18th year at IDC, Al has participated in numerous IDC research areas, including infrastructure software (operating environments and virtualization software), enterprise servers, and developer software and services. He has long tracked open source software in infrastructure software markets, and now has expanded open source coverage to cover other market segments.