Has open source gone mainstream?

GitHub office with GitHub logo over top
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Open source has officially made it. While open source advocates may have faced an uphill battle to convince their colleagues in the past, the technology has now become a legitimate component of the mainstream technological scene.

That's according to GitHub's senior director of infrastructure engineering Sam Lambert, who told IT Pro that open source software is no longer the niche field it once was.

"I feel like we're not selling open source any more," he said. He pointed out that not only are major companies in multiple sectors using open source technologies, they're even starting and contributing to open source projects themselves.

"A lot of large enterprises [view] being open source as an essential way of propagating the use of their technologies," he said, "and they're open sourcing stuff quickly."

Even Apple - a company that has become notorious for the closed nature of its tools and ecosystem - has jumped on the bandwagon, opening up several of its core services to developers.

In addition to open sourcing its programming language, Swift, Apple has also released open APIs for iOS tools such as Siri, Phone, and Maps. In Lambert's view, however, the most important of these will be the iMessage API, allowing third-party apps to directly integrate with iOS' inbuilt messaging tools.

"I think there's going to be a lot of businesses that will want to interact with you through iMessage," he said. "Imagine if I could book a hair appointment just by texting '8PM tomorrow'."

He's far from wrong. In fact, Facebook is already experimenting with this exact customer interaction model, both through Facebook Messenger and through its subsidiary, WhatsApp. Skype and Slack have also built bot platforms, but the ability to integrate with one of the most widely-used messaging platforms in the world will likely prove highly attractive to companies.

This, according to Lambert, demonstrates the business value of open sourcing technology. "The open source community is a creative bunch of people that are leading in technology and it brings them in," he said.

So great is the value of letting the community add to your code, that some companies are even open sourcing their tools and software before they're finished, and Github is one of those companies.

"We're going to open source a couple of [projects] before we're done building them, so that we develop them out in the open from the beginning, and get community engagement right away," Lambert told IT Pro. "It changes how you develop, and also how you communicate around your development."

This approach to open source affects how businesses collaborate, not just internally but also with other enterprises, said Lambert. He revealed that when Box began to use Hubot, Github's chatbot tool, the company's engineers built middleware in order to add security layers to protect its customers' information. Box fed those features back into the Hubot open source project, and some of them are now in use by Github itself.

This is just one of many examples of companies unexpectedly cooperating with each other. "They're learning to share as groups of technologists," Lambert said, adding "it's really rare across many industries to see this type of collaboration for the sake of collaboration."

Open source has even infiltrated the highest levels of global government. The White House has told federal agencies to start open sourcing their code, the US government uses Github to publish drafts, and Lambert revealed that even President Obama has a Github account - "and he's merged pull requests!"

For Github, Lambert told us, the future is no longer in convincing people to adopt open source, but showing them what it can do for them now they have adopted it. One way the company is doing this is by investing heavily in big data analytics.

Github will use the vast repositories of code it hosts to point users towards projects they might be interested in based on the type of projects they contribute to, as well as analysing the code they contribute, comparing it against similar examples to suggest potentially more efficient commits.

In Lambert's view, the most important element of open source is the freedom it offers developers. "Put a child in front of a Lego set, they build something amazing," he said. "If you focus on what they're going to build... you limit the outcome."

"If you empower your developers and they care about the project," he said, "they will build and dream bigger than you can imagine."

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.

Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.

You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.