Open Source Matters More Than Ever

When an entrepreneur asked me recently what I’d learned during the 2001 dotcom bust that applies today in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the answer was obvious: The short-term strategies that we used to keep the company afloat were dwarfed in their impact by the things we did to help others. Focusing on our mission — changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators — and asking ourselves who needed that knowledge and what they needed to know kept us working on the things that mattered most.

I mention this interaction because, as you all may have heard by now, O’Reilly Media is shuttering its in-person events business as a result of the pandemic. This is a painful shock to the company, the employees affected by the closing, our customers, and to the technology communities and the business ecosystems that we support and engage with.

One of those events that we won’t be holding this year is Oscon, the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, launched in 1999 and our longest-running conference. This summer, we would have held Oscon for the 21st time. It’s sad not to hold it again. Our events have always been a gathering place for technology communities, where people show off their work, meet friends, find customers, and get inspired by others.

But the closing of our in-person events business is also an opportunity. We’re working to reinvent the events business online, because what we have learned and built together matters more than ever. But more importantly, this is the moment when the practices pioneered by open source software communities — and their spirit — are being called on across the world.

When we gathered the open source communities together for the first time in 1998, the challenges we faced were, in retrospect, quite small. We were going up against an entrenched software monopoly, carrying the banner of freedom. Freedom to study and understand, freedom to modify, freedom to use for new purposes, freedom to share. On the back of that idealism, we built a new industry, an internet where anyone — not just software developers — could share their creativity. It didn’t work out quite as we imagined. New monopolies have arisen, and new threats to freedom. But the fundamental gifts that the open source community gave to the world —a huge advance in the freedom to share and build on the knowledge of others, and tools and practices for collaboration at distance and at scale — are alive and well and more essential than ever. The challenges the world faces today and in the future can only be overcome by a level of sharing and cooperation that dwarfs anything the open source community has done in the past.

Everywhere I look I see what science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow once called “the adhocracy” rising to the challenges of the present moment. Whether it’s the way that the open science community didn’t wait for journals and slow publishing processes to start sounding the alarm and tracking the evolution of the virus; the way a small group of former government technologists stood up US Digital Response, a matching marketplace for volunteer technologists and those running overwhelmed government services, and projectn95, the National COVID-19 Medical Equipment Clearinghouse, within days after the White House told states that they were on their own; or the way the open source hardware community has stepped up to design and manufacture spare parts for ventilators, face masks, and other necessary medical supplies, we see dynamic new self-organizing groups routing around old systems to go right at the problem. Ad-hoc collaboration is helping people leap over old institutional boundaries, business models, and structures, so that they can just focus on getting the job done.

We’ve already seen the release of new Covid-19-specific projects, like open source tools for medical capacity planning and models for applying deep learning to spot Covid-19 lesions in X-rays (there are already almost 10,000 Covid-19-related Github repositories), but even apart from that, open source software has become central to the progress of all science. Big companies are also joining in. Pharma giant Pfizer has committed to open source many of their tools for developing new treatments and vaccines, and is working to organize new kinds of cooperation with their giant rivals and with the smaller companies that surround them.

And with businesses shut down and shelter in place orders worldwide, hundreds of millions of people are learning what open source communities learned decades ago: you don’t need to gather in the same room to be able to work together creating world-changing products and services. The world will never be the same.

It’s up to us to find our way forward into that new world that Covid-19 is shaping. We can do it with fear and self-protection, or we can do it the way the open source community has been teaching us for decades: with a fierce joy in tackling the hardest problems and making the biggest difference.

So while we won’t be seeing you in Portland this summer, we’ll be seeing you everywhere that there is a difference to be made, cooperating with others to build a better world.

Thank you.

Tim O’Reilly
Founder, CEO, and Chairman of O’Reilly Media