Convergence: the Open Source game of ‘join the dots’, and an existential threat to the proprietary world.

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If you think about it, pretty much all proprietary product development is done in parallel. Company A, which competes with company B, does its damnedest to make the best widgets in the world, using more or less exclusively its own resources. Company B develops its products on a parallel track. Convergence does happen, but mostly via competition or accident: camera manufacturers didn’t appreciate or like it when lenses appeared on the iPhone, any more than Sony liked it when the Apple iPod put a ‘1,000 tunes in your pocket’ and killed off the Walkman.

Take out the whole concept of intellectual property – as you do with Open Source – and the dynamics of markets fundamentally change. With Open Source, convergence happens by design. Company A no longer works on a parallel track with Company B. There are no trade secrets. You want to use a piece of our code? Take it! You’re working on something with similar functionality? Copy what we did, no problem! Don’t bring our kit back to your lab and reverse engineer it, give us a call, and hey, we’ll talk you through exactly what we did and why! Can you make it better? Tell us and we’ll incorporate your enhancements!

Think about it for a moment in terms of how that changes things. Company A made a software programme, but it borrowed source code from Company B. In doing so it improved Company B’s code, and Company B got a free update from A’s work. Because they are now using common source code, the products tend to work together better. Developers contributing to Open Source projects work with each other and actively help this process. What does this mean in the real world? It means Open Source projects are one great big game of ‘join the dots’ in enterprise IT.

Dictionary definition of the verb to converge:

  1. To tend to meet in a point or line; incline toward each other, as lines that are not parallel.
  2. To tend to a common result, conclusion, etc.

Open Source is the text book example of convergence, development is not parallel, it tends to meet in a point or line and it tends to come to a common conclusion. Now, that’s really not very good news for proprietary technology firms. Not good at all. What happens when projects like Linux, Hadoop, Spark, Ceph and OpenStack all borrow code and developers and expertise from each other? When this behaviour is a natural tendency, inbuilt, innate, instinctive? Convergence is what happens, and, I’m guessing, when we’ve done joining the Open Source dots, the resulting picture won’t include nearly as many proprietary firms as it does now.

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Jason Phippen
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