Looking Back: What Was Happening Ten Years Ago?

That was then, this is now: what's next for the Open Source world?

A decade passes so quickly. And yet, ten years for open source is half its life. How have things changed in those ten years? So much has happened in this fast-moving and exciting world, it's hard to remember. But we're in luck. The continuing availability of Linux Journal's past issues and website means we have a kind of time capsule that shows us how things were, and how we saw them.

Ten years ago, I was writing a regular column for Linux Journal, much like this one. Looking through the 80 or so posts from that time reveals a world very different from the one we inhabit today. The biggest change from then to now can be summed up in a word: Microsoft. A decade back, Microsoft towered over the world of computing like no other company. More important, it (rightly) saw open source as a threat and took continuing, wide-ranging action to weaken it in every way it could.

Its general strategy was to spread FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). At every turn, it sought to question the capability and viability of open source. It even tried to convince the world that we no longer needed to talk about free software and open source—anyone remember "mixed source"?

Alongside general mud-flinging, Microsoft's weapon of choice to undermine and thwart open source was a claim of massive patent infringement across the entire ecosystem. The company asserted that the Linux kernel violated 42 of its patents; free software graphical interfaces another 65; the OpenOffice.org suite of programs, 45; and assorted other free software 83 more. The strategy was two-fold: first to squeeze licensing fees from companies that were using open source, and second, perhaps even more important, to paint open source as little more than a pale imitation of Microsoft's original and brilliant ideas.

The patent battle rumbled on for years. And although it did generate considerable revenues for the company, it failed dismally in its aim to discredit free software.

But alongside the patent attack, there was one particular area where Microsoft conducted perhaps its dirtiest campaign against openness and freedom. Although it's hard to believe this today, one of the fiercest battles ever fought between Microsoft and the Open Source world was over the approval of the company's OOXML format (Office Open XML, the name of which was chosen to be confusingly close to OpenOffice XML and later renamed OpenDocument Format or ODF) as an open standard. As I wrote in May 2008 in a Linux Journal column titled "The Great Besmirching":

In the course of trying to force OOXML through the ISO fast-track process, [Microsoft] has finally gone further and attacked the system itself; in the process it has destroyed the credibility of the ISO, with serious knock-on consequences for the whole concept of open standards.

OOXML was approved by the ISO, and it remains the dominant format for word processing and spreadsheet files. Microsoft may have won that battle, but it lost the war. Although still a hugely profitable company, it is largely irrelevant in today's key markets—for smartphones, supercomputers, the Internet of Things, online search and social media, all of which run on open-source code.

Another name figured quite prominently in my columns of ten years ago: Firefox. Along with the Apache web server, it is one of open source's great success stories, taking on Microsoft's slow and bloated Internet Explorer, and winning. At the time, it seemed like Mozilla might be able to build on the success of Firefox to strengthen the wider open-source ecosystem. Mozilla is still with us, and it's doing rather well financially, but it has had less success with its share of the web browser market. As a graph on Wikipedia shows, Firefox's ascent came to a halt around 2010, and its market share has been in decline pretty much ever since. That's not to say that Mozilla is not important to the world of free software—partly because of its solid finances, it does much valuable work in many related fields. But Firefox has become something of a niche browser, used mostly by die-hard supporters.

As well as some serious missteps by Mozilla—moves to support building DRM into the fabric of the web lost it many friends—Firefox's fall was driven above all by the rise of Chrome. Google's browser was first released in September 2008, precisely during the time I was writing my Linux Journal columns. It seemed an interesting project, but few foresaw that it would come to dominate the browser market by such a wide margin. Recent surveys put its share around 60%, with other players down in the teens and below. It's worrisome that Google's effective monopoly seems to be recapitulating the worst aspects of Microsoft's Internet Explorer days, as we start to see services and sites optimized for Chrome to the detriment of other browsers and open standards.

In retrospect, the most striking absences from those ancient posts are the social-networking companies. Although Facebook was launched in 2004 and Twitter in 2006, and both were well known at the end of that decade, there was little sense that social networks would come to dominate online activity as they do today (or to bring with them a host of problems that go way beyond the technical realm). In a sense, this particular aspect of digital technology has succeeded too well, forming a critical part of modern life, but with pronounced negative aspects that are leading to something of a backlash. What's ironic is that both Facebook and Twitter are built largely on open-source code, and yet they remain deeply proprietary in the way they control access to people's personal data. The lack of viable free software alternatives—despite attempts to create them—is a major failure.

The other major challenge concerns the mobile space. Although I missed the future dominance of Chrome, I was right about Android. Back in 2009, I wrote:

It already looks increasingly likely that the world of smartphones will be dominated by two platforms: the iPhone and Android. If, as some believe, Google does come out with its own branded mobile, this will give an even greater impetus to Android's uptake. But while the vast majority of its apps are closed source, they will not help spread real user freedom or offer much of an alternative to Apple's tightly controlled approach.

The paucity of open-source apps on Google's smartphone platform and the elements of proprietary lock-in found in Android itself remain, a decade later, key problems that the Free Software world still needs to address if it wants to become more relevant for general users of mobile and online services. That's one clear challenge, but where else should the Open Source community be directing its efforts? What are the key trends and technologies for the future that the Free Software world needs to recognize and tackle? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and then we can come back in ten years to see who was right.

About the Author

Glyn Moody has been writing about the internet since 1994, and about free software since 1995. In 1997, he wrote the first mainstream feature about GNU/Linux and free software, which appeared in Wired. In 2001, his book Rebel Code: Linux And The Open Source Revolution was published. Since then, he has written widely about free software and digital rights. He has a blog, and he is active on social media: @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+.