Open Source in 2010: Nine Predictions

Wednesday Dec 30th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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Forecasts about free video drivers, Google’s efforts, GNOME-KDE, and more.

Even though this is the end of the decade only for those who can't count, retrospectives seem more common than predictions in the last days of 2009. Or maybe, after a year of recession, all the pundits are nervous about the future.

But, never being one to follow a trend or get nostalgic, I prefer to look ahead to what the next year holds for open source software. Everything always happens ten times faster in open source than in mainstream computing, but, even by open source standards, 2010 promises to be an interesting year.

We can take for granted, I think, that open source will continue to gain popularity. 2010 will not be the fabled Year of the Linux Desktop, but we should continue to see the same slow, steady increase in adoption of the past decade.

But what else? Let me prove my foolhardiness and make nine specific predictions about what to expect in 2010 in open source communities, technology, and business:

1) Complete Free Video Drivers Arrive

Users have been waiting a long time for open source video drivers that match proprietary ones feature for feature. But by the end of next year they may actually arrive. Intel drivers are already solid, and are used on about twenty-five percent of open source computers.

However, the Linux 2.6.33 kernel is supposed to include increased support for both ATI and NVIDIA cards, so major improvements are a certainty by the end of next year. At the very least, if features are still missing, they should be come by mid-2011.

2) The Community Turns to a MySQL Fork

When Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems in April 2009, it also acquired MySQL, the popular online database. Eight months later, exactly what Oracle plans for MySQL remains uncertain, and people are getting nervous.

Richard Stallman has publicly urged that Oracle divest itself of MySQL, while Monty Widenius, MySQL's creator, has started a letter-writing campaign to the European Commission to save the database from being dismembered by Oracle.

Given that there seems to be no legal logic that would help these campaigns, I suspect that they will fail. If they do, continued distrust of Oracle will probably make the open source community discontinue shipping MySQL in distributions.

Instead, it may turn to some of the existing MySQL forks, mostly likely Widenius' own MariaDB, which is already in Ubuntu's Launchpad. A movement to PostgreSQL, the other major open source database seems unlikely because it is less oriented to the needs of websites.

3) The Release of GNOME 3.0 Threatens a User Revolt

Two years ago, the release of KDE 4.0 nearly ended in a user revolt because it was a radical departure from earlier versions and lacked some basic key desktop features. GNOME 3.0, tentatively scheduled for September 2010, seems unlikely to lack features, but its earliest versions suggest it will be as radically new in design as KDE 4.0 -- and the reactions indicate that the user reaction could be equally hostile.

GNOME's main advantage is that its developers can learn from the experience of KDE. Any hostility need not be permanent, especially if the next few releases have a clear roadmap.

Still, if the complaints are especially strong or prolonged, who knows? Maybe the reaction against GNOME will attract more users to KDE or lesser known desktops like Xfce.

4) The Differences Between Free Software and Open Source Flare Up Again

To outsiders, open source and free software seem alternative names for the same phenomenon. However, to many community members, that is like saying that Protestantism is no different from Catholicism. Despite numerous similarities, open source is a developer's movement focused on improving code quality, while free software concentrates on how to improve the average user's control of their computer.

Usually, the two philosophies co-exist -- often within the same project. However, every now and then, their adherents come into conflict. The last major conflict was a couple of years ago over version 3.0 of the GNU General Public License, which made the free software concerns more obvious than version 2.0.

The exact issue for the next conflict remains uncertain. However, free software supporters have never been shy about expressing their opinions, and open source adherents are becoming increasingly vocal in their disdain for free software in general and its founder Richard Stallman in particular. In some places, the rhetoric is getting so ugly that the conflict seems only a matter of time.

A couple of weeks ago, the likeliest issue appeared to be GNOME's possible withdrawal from the free software-oriented GNU Project -- a move would mean almost nothing from an everyday perspective, but would probably be seen as a declaration that GNOME was firmly in the open source camp. The issue, though, is harder to dispute than the conflict itself.

5) Open Source Continues to Struggle with Feminism

2009 saw a series of incidences in which people like Richard Stallman and Mark Shuttleworth were accused of sexism because of remarks made in public. Added to the observation that women are severely under-represented in open source, these incidences make 2009 the year that the community discovered women's issues.

To call this discovery controversial is like calling World War II socially awkward. It soon provoked excuses, accusations of political correctness and other transgressions, and claims of hidden agenda among feminists -- to say nothing of all sorts of special pleading for individual instances and an astonishing amount of denial.

All the same, the issue is unlikely to go away. The self-described geek feminists are too organized and too determined. And the more that open source becomes mainstream, the more women will become involved with it. But even more basically, countering the severe under-representation of women in the community is one of the quickest ways to attract more contributors, so savvy projects are not about to ignore the issue.

6) Google Chrome OS Brings a Verdict on Cloud-Based Desktops

Chrome OS, Google's cloud-based operating system, is scheduled for release in the second half of 2010. Given the proverbial beta status of Google products, nobody will be surprised if this deadline slips, but 2010 should see at least an advanced beta or release candidate. Despite the current availability of Jolicloud, for the majority of computer users, Chrome OS is likely to be the first glimpse of a cloud-based operating system.

The novelty of Chrome OS should bring it millions of downloads in the first month after its release. Moreover, Google is working with hardware manufacturers to ensure that Chrome OS is supported. Yet whether Chrome OS will maintain a large user base seems questionable. Many of us already have serious doubts about cloud-based operating systems, and so far, they seem even more awkward than the traditional desktops from which they are supposed to deliver us.

My guess is that Chrome OS will be nothing more than a niche product. One way or the other, though, we should have the verdict on the concepts behind it by the end of 2010.

7) Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome Compete on the Browser Front

Even if I am correct and Chrome OS enjoys only brief popularity, its lasting legacy will probably be the Chrome browser itself. Its speed and multi-threading are challenges that Mozilla Firefox will need to be nimble to meet, especially since Chrome may mean that Google will withdraw its support from Mozilla development.

Right now, Firefox's chief advantage is its thousands of extensions. Although the first Chrome extensions are now available, they will not match Mozilla's in number or versatility for a few years -- and then only if a large community forms around them.

This situation means that Chrome is no more going to overtake Mozilla than Mozilla is going to overtake Internet Explore in the foreseeable future. However, in 2010, Chrome could erode Firefox's user base in the same way that Firefox does Internet Explorer's.

8) Raindrop and WAVE Fail to Find Users

By coincidence, two of the new applications that we are likely to see in 2010 are Mozilla's Raindrop, a one-stop messaging and social networking tool, and Google's WAVE, a collaboration tool.

Both are interesting for developers and interface designers. However, while I have only read about either one, since Raindrop is unreleased, and WAVE is available by invitation only, I would be surprised if either was a major success. For one thing, both set out to solve problems that average users do not see as problems. I simply don't see that most users want to centralize messaging, or are particularly interested in real-time collaboration.

Yet even if users were interested, both Raindrop and WAVE seem too complicated and too major a readjustment in thinking to have much chance of being widely used. Reviewers will probably love them, because reviewers are among the more experienced users. Other users? Not so much.

9) The Nexus One Becomes A Geek Tool

Early in January, Google's Nexus One should be available. The Nexus One has good (although not completely favorable) buzz within the tech community, but whether it will find a larger market is questionable.

From reports, the Nexus One does not include any features that will be compelling to a general audience. Moreover, it will be competing in a saturated phone market, and Google does not have the reputation of Apple. Nor are matters helped by the fact that, at first, it will not be sold through any cellular service, or even through stores. Under these circumstances, I think it will sell mainly to developers, and fail to find much of a wider audience.

The Larger Picture

This list was not compiled with any stronger bias than the accidental one of my own interests. Yet, looking at it, I realize that four out of nine involve Google. That observation suggests a meta-prediction: 2010 will be a crucial year for Google's efforts to move beyond being a development shop and become a major player in both software and hardware.

Given Google's past performance, I am pessimistic that the company can make this move. Yet, at the same time, Google is the source of so many innovations that sooner or later it is likely to have a major success, if only on the infinite monkey theory.

As for my other predictions, while I expect changes in the open source community, I do not expect an apocalypse. The community is diverse enough that, at the same time that changes are a given, the effect of any single change will make little difference to the thousands submitting patches every day.

The angst of the moment may be intense, but, in the end, the community will go on plotting world domination and reaching various milestones without much fuss -- then, every now and then, something neither I nor any other observer predicted will roll along.

And if I am wrong about anything? Then I claim the psychic's privilege of not being held to account for my lack of accuracy or failure of foresight, and reserve the right to try again year, with no prejudice from anybody's long memory being used against me.

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