The Ongoing Battle of Open Source vs Proprietary Software

The year 2023 has seen chaos engulf numerous established proprietary technologies, prompting a widespread search for more open alternatives. Case in point: Twitter’s steady downfall since Elon Musk took over has led many to explore options like Mastodon or Bluesky.
This scenario would become all too familiar throughout the year, as established technologies hit a chaos curve, making people realize how beholden they are to a proprietary platform they have little control over. The OpenAI fiasco in November, where ChatGPT temporarily lost its co-founders, including CEO Sam Altman, created chaos culminating in Altman’s return. However, businesses started questioning the prudence of relying solely on OpenAI, with “open” alternatives such as Meta’s Llama-branded family well-positioned to capitalize.
Even Google seemed to acknowledge that “open” might triumph over “proprietary” AI, with a leaked internal memo expressing fears that open source AI was gaining the upper hand. Elsewhere, Adobe’s $20 billion bid to buy rival Figma was a boon for open source Figma challenger Penpot. When Unity unveiled a controversial new fee structure, developers turned to open source rival Godot.
It became evident that the struggles within the open source community were once again laid bare, with proprietary companies typically the root cause of the kerfuffle.
In August, HashiCorp switched its popular Terraform software from a “copyleft” open source license to the source-available Business Source License (BSL) due to third-party vendors benefitting from Terraform’s community-driven development. This led to a vendor-led faction forking the original Terraform project and creating OpenTofu with the Linux Foundation serving as the governing body.
Sentry also made a similar change in 2019 from an open source license to BSL, but this year created the Functional Source License (FSL) designed to “grant freedom without harmful free-riding.” Element transitioned the decentralized communication protocol Matrix from a fully permissive Apache 2.0 license to a less-permissive AGPL open source license to protect its commercial interests.
This highlights the perennial struggle from companies looking to embrace the open source ethos, without compromising their commercial interests.
The past 12 months have underscored both the power and perils of open source software, showing how going all-in on proprietary platforms can lead to vendor lock-in and disastrous consequences when things go wrong. But businesses built on solid open source foundations can easily switch the terms of engagement, all in the name of commercial protectionism.
The eternal struggle between open source and proprietary software has never been more apparent. As the chaos curve continues to affect established technologies, the search for open alternatives seems to be the default reaction. The power of open source software is evident, but so are the perils.


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