Open Source Software Trends for 2021 and Beyond

In 2020, very few open source software projects remained truly “open” without a single company acting essentially as an owner. PostgreSQL and Debian are probably the last relics of the idealistic era of the 1980s and 1990s. Let’s look at how and why the OSS market and the ownership of open source software projects have changed over time, and take a glimpse into what the future will bring as open source projects continue to mature and as adoption continues to rise.

The dynamics of open source and community-developed projects have changed in recent years, transforming the way open source is developed and delivered. Some of the shifts benefit users at large, while others have hindered innovation. But the premise and promise of open source have persevered, and though its current form has evolved from its original intent of being completely open and free, it is still just as powerful and able to transform industries as ever. Below, I have laid out a few of the dynamics that have shaped the recent evolution of open source. 

The Influence of Large Companies

Cloud providers and large corporations leverage all the benefits that open source software can give them, but (with the exception of Google) they rarely invest in or even contribute to community-developed projects. They may fork a good open source software development project and launch a commercial service or product, but this serves only to make open source developers put more restrictions on their initial licenses. For example, the recent case of Elastic changing its flagship product license and Amazon forking Elasticsearch & Kibana will encourage OSS project developers to move from a fully open source model. It’s natural to expect that smaller companies will want to protect their source code from unauthorized usage by cloud providers not partnering with them. All in all, we are witnessing the launch of a variety of custom licenses that limit openness such as the ones used earlier by MariaDB and MongoDB.

Large companies that develop a proprietary fork of an OSS project are transforming open source into a marketing tool to obtain more leads. Offering a freemium community edition and a paid-for enterprise edition also helps these “owners” fill their roadmaps with high-quality feature requests. Large corporations will also invest in select high-quality OSS products to become the market leaders and gain access to millions of users and large volumes of user data, which is what Google has done with Android and Chromium.

Large companies can take control of popular OSS projects in multiple ways. They can invest in them as a VC, purchase exclusive rights to the OSS project developments, or offer extremely high paychecks to the key software developers. These companies end up with a monopoly, offering the market’s top free product, beating all competitors thanks to the zero price tag.

As the internet becomes more and more subject to governmental control in various regions, some governments have started investing in technology to gain more internal and external influence. OSS is no exception because governments can enjoy significant benefits and count on high adoption if the projects are properly developed and promoted. In fact, the U.S. has launched a community for 5G OSS projects, and China has launched its own alternative to GitHub.

A Shrinking Open Source Community

The world’s codebase is growing in size and complexity. Today, even popular open source software projects have become readable only to a small community of maintainers and contributors. As a result, customers rarely customize OSS projects and instead are turning more frequently to the companies that control the projects. Customers can still send feature requests and participate in roadmap discussions and voting, but this is far from a direct contribution.

So, while the perception of open source software is still as a free option that gives customers the ability to customize the product and choose a vendor for support services, this is, for the most part, no longer true. Customers typically don’t take any responsibility for the project and contribute less often, donations are rare, and fewer developers than ever are willing to contribute freely to someone else’s OSS project.

What the Future Will Bring

With the above realities in mind. Here are some predictions for what we’ll see in 2021 and beyond.

The number of open source projects will continue to grow as this business model has proved to be efficient for many vendors.

In 2021, with vendor lock-in still being regarded as one of the significant risks related to proprietary software, we’ll see more vendors distributing their source code to mitigate this risk, even if they are not planning to go fully open source. However, even partial openness creates more opportunities for integrations for both open source and proprietary systems, which is beneficial for end users. We expect the drift toward open source to continue with many companies distributing the basic version of their flagship software for free, with paid-for add-ons or support services offered to generate revenue.

Complex open source solutions will require a collaborative effort by multiple vendors.

Software solutions will become more and more complex, requiring a considerable effort to develop new features and maintain the existing code. The concentration of necessary expertise within just one company will become harder to maintain. So Agile teams uniting developers from various companies will gather to develop new features for the crucial open source products.

Many new projects will be launched with a strong focus on regional adoption (U.S., EU, China, etc.).

To ensure compliance with local laws, software development teams will have to adjust to the era of a segmented internet by implementing features to support local regulations. Various restrictions related to data storage and processing can still be introduced, which will impact the open source database industry. The largest OSS projects may become involved in the political process.

OSS in its mature phase will become an integral part of the world’s business processes. The largest OSS projects will become involved in political processes, too.

Even large companies that haven’t been into open source previously see potential in this business model. Data is becoming increasingly critical, and users are becoming more conscious of how their data is processed. This will drive companies to become more user-oriented and make their software partially open to users. Major open source projects are gaining large market shares and, therefore, will become crucial for certain industries or even countries. This will end with more interest in OSS from politicians, who might want to introduce more regulations.

The Future of Open Source Software

For those who worry about the future of open source software, it is worth keeping in mind that in the beginning, many people believed it would never amount to anything and certainly never find its way into the production environments of large organizations. Yet here it is, thriving and providing foundational technology for some of the most well-known brands in the world, including Google, Facebook, Citi, Accenture, Wells Fargo and many more. In the coming years, the definition of open source may continue to evolve, but I believe the underpinnings and spirit of open, project-based development will continue to help reshape the technology industry and how enterprises do business.


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