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Dave Orme muses about agile and functional programming.

My current work emphasizes SOA applications using Scala, Kubernetes, and AWS with a React-based SPA front-end. I'm also interested in progressive web applications and developer tools.


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Kubernetes, Docker, Streaming Data, Spark, Scala, Clojure, OSGi, Karaf, GCP, AWS, SQL


Everything I say here is my own opinion and not necessarily that of my employer.


Surviving and Thriving in the Software Business

LinuxWorld 2005 was my first LinuxWorld.

Although I've been running a 100% Linux shop since '98 and first installed Linux on one of my computers in '95, I haven't made it to a LinuxWord before now. The reasons for this are long and varied, but mostly boil down to:

  • I was a poor grad student and couldn't afford to
  • I was a poor university professor and couldn't afford to
  • I was recovering from both of the above. ;-)

So having been a Linux and Java fanatic from early on, I was naturally anticipating getting to attend (and speak at) my first LinuxWorld conference. But I found the conference to be a downer.

“Why?” I ask myself.

The old excitement

In recent years, I have focused my energies on Java software development. Consequently, even though I was one of the original Gnome committers, I had mostly lost touch with the Linux community. But I remember well the excitement and enthusiasm about Linux, Free Software, and Open Source (and no, they aren't the same thing) back in the '90s. We were an enthusiastic counter-culture with a powerful idea ready to change the world. And in large parts of the world, we have–including somewhat here in the US, a place not accustomed to being called a backward society, and where the tight-fisted (even clench-fisted) control of the resident monopolist has definitely chilled the technical and business atmosphere.

And that is why I think I came away depressed.

Backwards and forwards

LinuxWorld was a conference dominated heavily by the big vendors. And it seems that open source and free software in the US at least is going to become dominated by the big vendors and to a lesser extent the academic research community. But mainly by the big vendors, because they are the only ones who can sustain investment over time.

Grad students graduate and get jobs, marry and have families, and all of a sudden that really cool open-source hobby no longer can be maintained to the degree it once was.

So thrives. And LinuxWorld becomes a place for the big-iron vendors to show how well their hardware runs Linux and explain how to do way-cool clustering, failover, and supercomputer development with the OS that was to change the world.

The Road Ahead

But it doesn't have to be this way!

The freedoms associated with the FOSS licenses and business models are still there. Anyone can still take the code and make whatever they want out of it.

But where are the ardent hackers, ready to change the world with their new, exciting take on some old idea, or even some new and innovative idea that few had imagined before?

The .org pavillion at LinuxWorld was mostly made up of the usual folks–intersting open source projects in their own right like Gnome and Debian and Eclipse and others. But I didn't see much that was really interesting and new.

Our industry as a whole and open-source in particular is fueled by powerful new ideas.

Where are these new ideas? And perhaps more to the point, where are the people who normally would be generating them?

I feel that the answer is complex, but it boils down to a few simple things:

  1. The Bubble of the 90s created thousands of tech worksers looking for entrepenurial jobs that no longer exist.
  2. Redmond has all-but killed the entrepenurial centers of the tech world.
  3. Offshoring has destroyed morale among American entrepenurial programmers.
  4. Because there is less economic incentive to get into the software business, a lot of the smart undergrads and grad students are going elsewhere.
  5. Similarly, in the old days, when you bought a PC and turned it on, the first thing you saw was a BASIC command prompt. This encouraged a whole generation of people to learn programming. Today, programming is stigmatized, reserved for geniuses working in splendid isolation (compared to the rest of the PC industry).
  6. Java has become the standard university programming language. Previously, C and C++ were the standard university programming languages and the best way to really learn C or C++ was to install Linux on your PC in order to gain access to the rich heritage and source code of the Unix and C programming environment. Now, students just download Eclipse, NetBeans, or BlueJ on their Windows PCs.
  7. The result is that we have little new blood in our industry. Especially, little new blood that fully understands and appreciates the rich heritage of sharing that permeated the software community in the Elder Days. The thing that made Free Software, Open Source, Linux, and Eclipse possible to begin with.

Open source depends on new ideas; those new ideas have often come from new people entering the industry. Often those people are the new generation of talented undergrads and grad students in universities.

But it isn't just open source that depends on people being able to have and exploit new ideas, but our whole industry, indeed the entire software development economy depends on this. So although I've been talking specifically about the challenges I see for Linux in particular, these challenges also apply to the whole industry.

So where do we go from here?

The way forward

The '90s were about pushing computing technology throughout corporations. So we had the advent of trade shows, professional magazines, and huge PR staffs designed to sterilize the air that we all breathe. But if we look around us, the number of places where computers can be used (and aren't being used) are immense. And the PC is only one tiny piece of this.

Automobiles now embed tens of computers inside them controlling various aspects of their operation. Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) are gradually replacing TVs as the entertainment centers of choice. Mobile devices in increasing numbers and types are being developed.

And all of these devices need software to run. When software becomes a commodity as it has, hardware becomes more important.

The successful software author of the new millenium will be someone who has mastered the open-source way of working, who is familiar with the vast array of open-source resources, who understands the strengths and weaknesses of the various open-source business models, and who can successfully compete in a global arena.

The successful software business will be one that is small, agile, able to benefit from the efficiencies of open-source resources and open-source style teams.

The successful software entrepreneur will be one that accepts that software is no longer king and figures out a way to leverage the needs of the hardware vendors, including those in the embedded space, to best advantage.

LinuxWorld revisited

So maybe it wasn't the LinuxWorld conference itself that made me depressed to begin with. Maybe it was the larger atmosphere of gloom that pervades the software business. The sense that we software geeks who were so much in demand during the 90s are now playing second fiddle to the hardware vendors.

But for those who recognize this sea-change and figure out how to exploit it, there is still good opportunity to be had.


Klaus Wuestefeld provided early feedback about the relationship between the consumerism of PCs and how it is harder to get PC users to learn any form of programming.


blog/surviving_and_thriving_in_the_software_business.txt · Last modified: 2014/10/17 22:08 (external edit)