Historical Reflections: Will the Future of Software Be Open Source?

Intellectual Property and Open Source

Article Snapshot


Martin Campbell-Kelly


Communications of the ACM, Vol. 51, No. 10, 2008


This paper looks at trends in software, asking if traditional business models will be replaced by open source.

Policy Relevance

Open source methods will continue to influence traditional software firms. But it is unlikely to take over. Software as a service might be a more important trend.

Main Points

  • Open source software lets users change the code to suit their own needs; open source code under the General Public License (GPL) must be distributed free.

  • Traditional software (proprietary software) cannot be redistributed or changed by users and is sold for profit. The profit motive encourages innovation.

  • Some forecast that open source will take over from traditional business models, so, for example, Linux becomes the market leader, supplanting Microsoft.  But many predictions about the future of software, such as the prediction that ordinary users would become programmers using ordinary language, have failed.

  • The Internet removed barriers to collaboration among software developers and to free distribution. Open source took off.

  • Ultimately open source is just another method of developing software, and that is only 10-15% of what a software firm does. The rest is marketing and user support. Here open source firms follow the same pattern as traditional firms.

  • Open source will continue to influence traditional models but is unlikely to take over.

  • Technological developments could alter the landscape completely.

  • A more dominant trend might be software as a service, software provided over the Internet.

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