2020 FLOSS Roadmap and Looking Forward
Published 16:22, 03 December 08
Making predictions is hard - especially about the future, as the saying goes. Against this background, I had low expectations of the “2020 FLOSS Roadmap”, which came out of the recent Open World Forum in Paris:
2020 FLOSS Roadmap is the Open World Forum’s main manifesto, and is designed to support discussions taking place during the different OWF seminars and forums. This is a prospective Roadmap, and a projection of the influences that will affect FLOSS between now (2008) and 2020, with descriptions of all FLOSS-related trends as anticipated by OWF contributors over this period of time. It also highlights all sectors that will, potentially, be impacted by FLOSS, from the economy to the Information Society.
My pessimism proved unfounded, for the “manifesto” is at once an excellent summary of where free software is now and may well go tomorrow, as well as a source of eminently sensible suggestions of ways to help it achieve the possibilities sketched out, and to avoid some of the pitfalls that are also noted.
The Roadmap's breadth of range and seriousness of tone is clear from the following introductory paragraphs:
In 2008, the future appears more uncertain than ever. We are living through a truly historic period in the sense that nothing will ever be as it was before. This break with the past can be seen to be the result of two factors converging: energy resources needed by economic development becoming scarcer and the impact of the recent crisis in the world’s financial system (amply confirming the ineffectiveness of its regulatory systems).
The result of this convergence is a systemic crisis, on a global scale, that is destabilizing both the real economy (commerce, industry, transport, work, etc.) and the virtual one: in real terms, it is not just the speculative financial bubble that is at issue here, but also Web 2.0 and its energy requirements. For example, a virtual Second Life avatar would consume 1,752 kWh of real electrical power annually, or as much as one Brazilian person; and according to certain calculations performed recently, Google would consume 2.1 tera-watt-hours in a year, which is equivalent to the energy consumption of two nuclear reactors.
Since Information and Communication Technology industries will in no way be spared the effects of this crisis, technology providers must now take ethical and environmental considerations on board when planning the development of their activities and products.
Finally, 2008 also brings hope. The message for change radiating from the USA rings out as a strident and symbolic call for openness and equality. In the same way, we are seeing widespread acknowledgement of the urgent need to preserve our environmental heritage.
So this is a turning point at which we can envisage a different kind of future, one built upon the basis of a new, more just social contract, with ecologically acceptable development programs, and more open international relationships.
The striking invocation of environmental sustainability is picked up in a statement of the central questions the Roadmap seeks to begin to address:
In the recent past, the “Linux adventure” set in motion by Linus Torvalds at the University of Helsinki in 1991 constructed on foundations set up by Richard Stallman in 1984 with the GNUproject, and more particularly with the GPL license guaranteeing toll-free source code, and offering a legal framework for collaborative development, has had huge repercussions on the Industry.
This has brought other FLOSS applications under the spotlight (from Apache Server to OpenOffice.org), and enabled other start-ups to hit the ground running (from Red Hat to MySQL), enterprises to prosper (from Internet access providers to IBM) and developers to add value to their experience, legal experts to expand their expertise, and researchers to communicate the results of their research or improve their tools, etc. Linux has literally been a catalyst in encouraging the appearance of veritable and fertile ecosystems.
It really has been a momentous turning point, and has changed the way we do things in the industry (as much in the development models cited as in the corresponding business models) and has also helped new markets to flourish.
Now is the moment when we need to examine the question of sustainability for FLOSS, or again look at the influence they could have on tomorrow’s technologies. Will FLOSS always be part of the industrial landscape in 2020? What part will they play in the Information Society of the future?
That same concern lies at the heart of the Roadmap's main fear about what lies ahead:
Concerning the different analyses undertaken in the course of our research for this study, if we try to identify the phenomenon of the technological and economic disruption that could throw our predictions out, and within which FLOSS will be instrumental, there is one trend all the contributors to this study are unanimous about: “Cloud Computing”.
Although we are well aware that it does not cover all the possible development avenues open to FLOSS in the future (for example, a subject such as “Internet of Things” could be an equally interesting tack to pursue for the future) we are jointly convinced that this tendency potentially represents an important driver for their development, and that eventually this new tendency risks disrupting the Industry in general, and provoking profound restructurings of the marketplace, with some players disappearing and new ones appearing.
In addition, when it comes to FLOSS in particular, FLOSS eco-systems and enterprises producing FLOSS such as we have known them these last two decades are in real danger.
I think this is a fair analysis. Despite the headlong rush to cloud computing, there has been very little thought given to what the implications might be for open source. In particular, the rise of “closed clouds” could represent a serious regression to the bad old days:
We are today facing a sea change just as transformational as that caused by Linux not long ago. We think that “Cloud Computing” could serve as a catalyst enabling communities, enterprises, and ecosystems to develop twice as fast as they did during this first wave of FLOSS, symbolized by Linux, and which has taken ten years (from 1990 to 2000) to really gather momentum.
The possibility of FLOSS dissolving within “Cloud” and being ‘diluted’ as a result is not negligible, and could also trigger a salutary shock wave for communities, adversely affecting their dynamism.
The risk of finding ourselves once again faced with a monopoly around a dominant proprietary platform thanks to the ‘network effect’ and (almost ironically) thanks to the opening up of its interfaces, seems to us sufficiently probable that we strongly believe an unprecedented reaction is needed from FLOSS Communities, but also from Industry and regular users.
But the Roadmap also has some concrete suggestions as what form this reaction might take:
So it is the risk of a new monopoly appearing and jeopardizing all these opportunities that leads us to predict over the next five years the appearance of Open Platforms delivering Open Services (paid or toll-free).
These are veritable collective initiatives, built around shared infrastructures deployed thanks to the collaboration between different players in our Information Society (among which one could find administrations, local authorities, telco operators, FAI, FLOS Communities, NGO’s, federations, etc.), for which they will guarantee transparency, security and availability.
These are important issues, and it's good to see them addressed so thoughtfully in this document. They form the context for the rest – and bulk - of the Roadmap, which touches on many other areas, grouped together to form seven themes:
Theme 1: Public policies: promoting sustainable development of shared resources
Theme 2: FLOSS: the key to future innovation and competitive differentiation?
Theme 3: Ensuring sustainability for FLOSS developer communities and business ecosystems
Theme 4: Technological and economic breakthroughs: challenge or opportunity for FLOSS?
Theme 5: IT 3.0: towards new governance for information systems?
Theme 6: FLOSS: a lever for employment and careers
Theme 7: FLOSS in an Open World: Innovations and best practices from Brazil
Each theme offers a range of practical recommendations, as well as analysis of the threats to achieving the desired outcomes. Although some sections are rather short on detail, the depth of knowledge about today's open source scene is evident. That alone makes the document well worth reading as a kind of grand summary of where free software is now. It seems that this will be an evolving Manifesto, updated each year; assuming that prediction is fulfilled, I shall have at least one thing to look forward to in the future.