Open Source in 2010: Nine Predictions

Forecasts about free video drivers, Google’s efforts, GNOME-KDE, and more.
Posted December 30, 2009

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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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.

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