Open source is not a new trend, but it has seen dramatic growth in popularity this year. Last week, Apple announced it would make its Swift programming language open source. The announcement was big news for a company well-known for protecting its software and operating systems. Experts say Apple’s announcement is a sign that the open source movement is truly taking off.
In fact, many big tech companies already use open source in one form or another. Google’s Android smartphone operating system is based on Linux. Recently, Google, Facebook and IBM all announced they would make their proprietary machine-learning technology available under an open-source license this year. IBM’s system, known as SystemML, will be freely available to share and modify through the Apache Software Foundation.
Why is open source becoming so popular?
More and more, developers are using open source tools when building applications and online services because it allows users to openly share and collaborate on code. IBM Vice President of Development Rob Thomas told the Wall Street Journal that IBM decided to open SystemML’s source code to attract a wider community of programmers and accelerate its development.
“It’s about speed and innovation,” said Thomas. “Right now, my [research and development] is limited to my R&D budget, unless we’re doing work in open source.”
Essentially, because it encourages crowdsourcing and collaboration, open source has opened the doors for amateurs and professionals alike to make better software faster than ever before. Because of that, as well as the fact that it offers advantages in terms of cost, control and innovation, experts predict open source tools will soon be a much higher percentage of every IT organization’s environment. Moving forward, experts predict enterprise IT departments will increasingly rely on open source products over proprietary products.
Open source advantages
Thomas says, for IBM, the release of SystemML’s source code could also give the company an edge against companies which have not open-sourced their artificial intelligence software, because programmers of AI software can potentially use SystemML to create customized machine learning software.
In addition, Thomas said making SystemML open-source will help the company recruit new AI experts, which are currently in huge demand.
CIOs are wise to evaluate how open source products might help them. One advantage is greater transparency not only of the source code itself, but also of all the design deliberations, etc. That’s a significant contrast to the secretive processes often used by proprietary vendors.
Finally, using a product with a potentially larger developer base enables access to greater innovation. With open source, you can directly interact with developers to present unique use cases that a proprietary vendor would likely ignore or dismiss. You can even contribute code that implements your desired functionality if you choose to.
Experts say there is one caveat to keep in mind: using open source often means you will need to be more self-reliant. Open source products don’t normally come with much documentation, so staff will need to be more willing to be engaged with a product and its community for support instead. Still, given its advantages in terms of cost, control and innovation, open source appears to be a good bet.