Open Source's Killer Features: What Makes Open Source So Popular?

Open source software has become so popular not primarily for cost reasons, but because of decentralization, rapid development cycles and the availability of open source to everyone.

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

November 27, 2017

4 Min Read
Open Source
open source handwritten with related word cloud on blackboard

Open source software is massively popular. That you know. But what, exactly, drives interest in open source? Hint: It’s more than just money.

A majority of organizations now use open source software, and 65 percent of companies contribute to open source projects, according to Black Duck, an open source security and compliance company.

And it’s not just companies that are in love with open source. A massive number of people rely on open source software in one way or another on an everyday basis — whether they realize it or not.

Android, the world’s most popular smartphone operating system, is derived from Linux. Open source code powers cars, smart thermostats and a variety of other connected devices. Most of the websites you visit are served to you by Apache HTTP or NGINX, both of which are open source platforms.

Open Source Is (Only) Not about the Money

You might be tempted to believe that interest in open source is driven merely by the fact that most open source software costs no money.

This is a simplistic way to explain the popularity of open source, however.

Yes, open source software in general is does not cost any money to obtain. But it’s not free; you still have to pay for support, maintenance and so on.

And if you’re a company looking to add new features in an open source platform, you often have to pay your own developers to implement those features, or otherwise invest in the project.

Explaining the Popularity of Open Source

There are much more important factors than cost that explain open source software’s success. They include:

  • Open source development is fast. In the current age of DevOps and continuous delivery, most software projects strive to push out updates on a frequent basis. But the open source community was ahead of the curve in this respect. Platforms like Linux achieved incredibly rapid release cycles starting early in their history. In some cases, open source development still outpaces that of closed-source platforms today. For example, Microsoft Windows users have to wait years for new releases; most major Linux distributions roll out new versions multiple times a year.

  • Open source is decentralized. Whether you’re a company or an individual consumer, relying on a single entity for your software needs is not a good thing. If the company that develops a closed-source software platform that you need goes out of business or decides to stop offering the platform, you’re out of luck. This is not the case with open source. Most open source projects are decentralized. They have multiple backers and stakeholders, which mitigates the risk of their disappearing.

  • Open source can be customized. Between about 1990 and 2010, the world of computing was relatively standardized — compared, at least, to what came before and after. X86 chip architectures dominated and most workloads were hosted using on-premise servers in a consistent way. Today, thanks to developments like IoT and the embrace of complex cloud-based architectures, computing is evolving in the opposite direction, and beginning to look again like it did in the 1960s and 1970s — when there were a range of different hardware profiles and software deployment scenarios. Open source is a great match for this new landscape because open source software is easy to customize. It can be tailored to meet individualized needs.

  • Open source offers control. We live in a world where software defines almost everything people do. It can be easy to feel like you have little control over the machines and code that more or less run your life. If the software on which you rely is open source, however, you can at least feel some sense of control over it. Even if you don’t actually write open source code yourself, the mere fact that you could read and modify open source software programs if you wanted to provides reassurance that you can still control your own destiny, even as software and computers take over everything we do.

  • Open source is open to everyone. If you want to join an open source community, the only thing that matters (in most cases, at least) is your ability to write useful code, or contribute in some other way. In general, open source projects care very little about the credentials, professional background or other details of contributors. This makes open source appealing in a way that closed-source software companies can’t match. In addition, open source can be obtained and used by virtually everyone. That is not always the case with closed-source platforms, which are sometimes available only in certain markets or to certain types of users.

Cost, then, is only the tip of the iceberg for open source’s success. There is much more driving open source’s massive — and continually growing — popularity and importance.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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