The four horsemen of open source
January 18, 2013  

I’ve seen a lot of mockery of the open source movement (“open is winning“). The funny thing is, it’s no contest: open source is destroying closed source.

For proof look no further than the Internet’s “Four Horsemen”: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

Apple’s operating systems, OS X and iOS, are based on an open source Unix. Its applications are compiled with an open source compiler (LLVM). The crown jewel of its mobile experience, Safari, is based on the open source WebKit, which in turn was based on the open source KHTML.

The other horsemen are web companies, and the web runs on open source (Linux, Apache, etc.). Google’s open source browser, Chrome, is based on WebKit. Their mobile operating system, Android, is based on Linux. Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets use a fork of Android. Facebook is even building open data centers.

All of the horsemen use proprietary code as well, of course, but that code is open source to them. It’s only closed to you. They hate using products that are closed to them. Most famously, Apple hated being dependent on Adobe for Flash so they killed it.

Open source means many things but the key feature for the horsemen is control. If there’s a problem they can fix it. If there’s a missing feature they can add it. They aren’t at the mercy of someone else and they don’t have to wait.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to the rest of us. If you are an iOS app developer you may get some benefit from the open source parts of iOS—you can see why things work they way they do—but you can’t change the iOS that’s running on your customers’ phones. And if you’re an end-user, forget about it. You don’t have much control over these things, and you probably couldn’t make use of it if you did.