Open source software – software freely shared with the world at large – is an old idea, dating back to the 1980s when Richard Stillman started preaching the gospel calling it free software. Then Linus Torvalds started working on Linux in the early 1990s. Today, Linux runs our lives. The Android operating system that runs so many Google phones is based on Linux. When you open a phone app like Twitter or Facebook and pull down all those tweets and status updates, you’re tapping into massive computer data centers filled with hundreds of Linux machines. Linux is the foundation of the Internet.
Cade Metz recently wrote in an article, “And yet 2015 was the year open source software gained new significance, thanks to Apple and Google and Elon Musk. Now more than ever, even the most powerful tech companies and entrepreneurs are freely sharing the code underlying their latest technologies. They recognize this will accelerate not only the progress of technology as a whole, but their own progress as well. It’s altruism with self-interest. And it’s how the tech world now works. This is not just a turning point, but a tipping point – says Brandon Keepers, head of Github.”
Apple, for the first time, decided to offer its Swift programming language (used to build apps for your iPad, iPhone, and Mac) to the open source. That means applications built on Swift can be deployed on machines running Linux, Android, and Windows OS. Previously Apple’s language Objective-C was only meant for Apple devices. This new move by Apple will enable developers to use Apple’s development tools across competing platforms.
Microsoft, another champion of proprietary software during the 1980s and 1990s, decided to open source its .Net software. That way, .Net can be used by developers to build applications for Linux and Apple’s operating system too. Even IBM decided to open source its own machine language IBM SystemML to Apache Spark.
Over the past 15 years, Google has built a wide range of data center technologies that have helped make it the most powerful company on the ‘net. These technologies allow all of the company’s online services to instantly handle requests from billions of people, no matter where in the world they may be. Typically, Google kept these technologies to itself, forcing others to engineer inferior imitations. Map-reduce and HDFS are examples, that grew out of Google’s file system and algorithms. But last year Google decided to open source TensorFlow, the software engine that drives its artificial intelligence services, including its image and speech recognition and language translation tools. Google realized that it could tap into a much larger team of researchers to enhance TensorFlow, much faster than done internally.
Elon Musk went even further. In mid-December, he and Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, unveiled OpenAI, a $1 billion nonprofit dedicated to the same breed of AI that Google is developing. They have promised to open source all their work.
Yes, 2015 was the year Open Source really reached new heights!