Upcoming trends in open source for 2021

Take a look at the current state of the art and upcoming trends in open source for 2021.

Fidel Chaves
10 min read

Open source explained

Before discussing the upcoming trends in open source for 2021, let's discuss what open source means. The term open source was coined by a group of people in the free software movement who wanted to avoid the political and moral connotations of the original concept: free software.

 

Its primary definition? Open-source software is publicly available code. Any person can see, distribute and modify it at their whim. It stems from free software and the free software movement, so it preserves some of its characteristics. The idea behind open-source software builds upon four requirements:

 

  • Freedom to run the program as you wish
  • Freedom to study how the program works and modify it to your computing needs
  • Freedom to redistribute copies
  • Freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others

 

As you might have noticed, open source is a requisite for these freedoms to be enacted. That is why you might see the distinction between free and open source, one is necessary to have the other, but they are not the same.

 

Long story short, switching from free software to open-source software was born partly because of the ambiguity of the word free in English. Something that doesn’t happen in Spanish that has distinct words “libre” and “gratis”.

 

Thanks to being decentralized and having a collaborative development process, open-source software is often cheaper, more flexible, and has a longer life cycle. Open source has become a movement that stretches far out, leaving boundaries behind.

Open source in design

We’ve seen how open source is a cornerstone of modern software development, but what about other disciplines like art and design? Well, here things start to get more complicated. Let's see how.

 

New trends in open source gradually started to seep into design. For instance, the open-source design trend began with the internet boom. While it was hard to communicate, share, and transform before the internet, artists did it anyway. There are plenty of misattributed quotes to artists that said basically: good artists copy; great artists steal. What happened with the new century? Remix culture exploded with new tools for creators.

 

The trickiest part of designing is not the result itself but how to get there. I know that I can be mesmerized when a musician I like releases a new album; the work behind it is indistinguishable from magic to me. Open-source design embraces those questions. It is not about replicating the creative process step by step but documenting, sharing, and collaborating with others.

 

Thanks to the new technologies, it is easier to create, combine, copy, and share existing material. It’s no surprise we are living in the age of the meme culture. Creators rely less and less on big companies and distributors, with a remixing culture flourishing and going strong.

 

Companies are now embracing open source and open design ideas, but copyright laws and licenses can be a rock on everybody's path. Hopefully, that may change soon.

Open-source licenses

Copyright and licensing can be daunting topics to tackle, especially when you have no law education whatsoever and contracts seem to be written in the most intricate and obscure way possible. Who would have thought that corporations would make it so hard to understand their policies and restrictions? Restrictive copyright and licensing of proprietary software is the norm, but this trend might be reversing.

 

Even within the open-source license world, increasingly more restricting licenses are proving to lose ground against more permissive licenses. According to WhiteSource, permissive open-source licensing continues to rise while the use of copyleft licenses (like GPL licenses) continues to decrease.

 

For instance, the Apache 2.0 license and the MIT license account for more than 50% of the open-source licenses in use. It seems that open-source creators are demanding permissive licenses, and the supply is responding. That makes a lot of sense, as in the current ultra-competitive tech world, it is better to reach the most people possible. Cast the wider net you have.

 

What do these licenses permit? According to GitHub’s choosealicense.com, the MIT license “lets people do anything they want with your code as long as they provide attribution back to you and don’t hold you liable,” which means: do what you want, but don’t make me responsible for your mistakes.

 

Even Facebook replaced their React license with an MIT license. If tech corporations like Microsoft follow along, we might experience a radical change in how we understand authorship and copyright.

Upcoming trends in open source for 2021

A Shrinking Open Source Community

There is a problem with the concept of open source: it is getting too popular. Yes, I know, that does not seem like a problem, but with a codebase growing in size and complexity, open-source software projects become more and more readable only to a small community of maintainers and contributors.

 

That is why we are starting to see the pendulum swing the other way: customers turning to companies that control projects for them. Even though the world was all about getting more independent and self-reliant, it is easy to see that a single mind cannot conceive it all.

 

A side effect resulting from that is that customers don’t usually take responsibility for their projects and contribute less and less often, an issue that aggravates an already existing problem. The thing is, donations are rare even from multi-million dollar companies that profit from open-source projects.

A growing number of open source projects

The number of open-source projects continues to grow as its model has been proved efficient to vendors. People trust open-source projects as they avoid vendor lock-in from proprietary software. Even partial openness is a benefit, and with some development, they can provide integration, which is always beneficial for end-users.

Collaborative efforts required

Collaborative efforts are called for as more complex open-source solutions need funding, research, and development. The industry demands increasingly more complex open-source software every day, but developing new features and maintaining existing code takes its toll.

 

This generates a landscape where the concentration of necessary expertise within just one company becomes harder to get. The need for agile software development and multidisciplinary teams has escalated quickly in the past few years.

New regional projects

With the global geopolitical issues of today, you can expect many new projects with a focus on regional adoption. Segmenting the US market from the EU, China, or India can be crucial as compliance with local laws becomes more relevant.

 

Even if we strive for a free and global Internet, we can expect a bumpy ride with companies trying to adjust to the era of a segmented internet. The growing restrictions to data storage and processing are bringing open-source projects into political conversations like never before.

Open-source security and threats

When I was younger, people used to say: “use Linux because there are few users, so nobody will spend time creating a virus for it”. That might have been true for the time, but as the use and popularity of open source increases, the amount of threats increases as well.

 

Why does this happen? If you start seeing an untapped market, you’ll start investing in getting those people’s money, even as a hacker. That’s why the threat factor has increased due to wider adoption. Luckily, with open source this means more developers looking after everybody's code and protecting them.

Integration with the world’s business and political processes

Open-source software is reaching maturity, and it has the potential to become an integral part of the world, implying a more relevant role in business and political processes. Big enough open-source projects will become involved in political issues as it is currently happening with Silicon Valley corporations. Beware, interest in open source from politicians might introduce regulations and new laws.

 

Data is becoming increasingly critical, and users are more conscious of how their data is processed. That is why companies will have to be more user-oriented and consider them if they don’t want to lose their market share to open-source projects.

Big data will get bigger and better

Big data, big scary data, big scary monstrous data. What can we expect? I don’t know, but probably Lovecraftian's cosmic-horror amounts of data. What will corporations do with them? Will we be able to make sense in any reasonable way? I’ll leave those question marks to you.

Mobile open-source partnership

You probably know that Android hitting the smartphone market all those years ago was revolutionary. More and more people have access to mobile phones today, surpassing even the personal computer market share and keeping mobile-first development on the rise, now with open source seasoning. Cross-platform mobile apps that use HTML, CSS, and Javascript are common, and Android developers working with Visual Studio now have new open-source options.

Trending open source technologies

As a final honorable mention, I left the futurology segment for the end: a repository of all the open-source technologies that look promising in the future or are already trending. Please, don’t take this as investment advice. I blew it with Bitcoin.

 

I have three major categories that you should check out. In the first place, the containers craze. This world includes Docker, Kubernetes, OpenShift, and Tensorflow, among others. Containerization has already left virtual machines technology behind, and it will continue to grow.

 

The second place is an obvious one, artificial intelligence or machine learning. I’m sure you were aware that the algorithm overlords were taking over; now you have this article to prove you were not the only one to think so. Open-source AI, or machine learning, is quickly growing due to companies like ONNX, Kubeflow, or PyTorch.

 

In the last place, it seems like Java technology continues to rise to the occasion. Being a simple, portable, and dynamic programming language, it maintains some relevance after all these years. Because Java is available on so many operating systems, it is capable of running on most computers. As a cross-platform and open-source alternative, Java can still be part of the conversation.

The future of open source

It is hard to picture the future of open source. As technology and innovation drive us forward, the world becomes a more complicated place and harder to understand. Every new piece of hardware or any revolutionary software can radically change our existence. Think of the advancement from the telegraph to mobile phones in under 200 years.

 

What we know for sure is that the open-source landscape is highly competitive. Funding projects might be challenging and a problem for many growing businesses. One of the solutions to this is the new Github sponsors, a kind of Patreon support for developers that dedicate themselves to a wider range of open source projects.

 

One thing I am positive about is that collaboration is an effective business strategy. As more businesses embrace this idea, we will see a surge in open-source initiatives all across the board, which is true to open hardware, open video games, open art projects, open design, and much more.

 

Finally, for those who worry about the future of open-source software, consider that people believed it would never work, and most of them would never bet on open source getting a single penny. Yet open-source unicorns are here, thriving and providing essential technology to the world.

 

At Awkbit, we believe that the open-source culture will keep transforming, but the soul of open, project-based development will continue to be a driving force, shaping the future of technology and the world. Are you ready to experience the open-source universe?

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Sources & further reading