Open Source in the Mainstream?

A long time ago I accepted the fact that – despite our little echo chamber online – the vast majority of the work I was doing and the technologies I was using would be above the heads and simply outside the worlds of the vast majority of the people I knew. It wasn't related to the intelligence of the people involved, it was simply a completely new and different set of experiences and concepts that only existed in a handful of places just a few years before. All of that being said, I was simply floored while I was listening to the radio while running errands on Saturday. I heard the words “Firefox extension”, “Gmail”, and “Google Notebook” used in proper context and not as a breathless “news” story from a tech-clueless reporter.

I didn't catch the name of the show at the time but later determined it was Leo Laporte, The Tech Guy. After a bit of digging and listening, it seems like this guy has not just a good clue, but a better clue about what's going on than 99% of the general radio/reporters out there and seems to be a true technophile.

More importantly though, is the idea that some of these tools and concepts are starting to make it into the mainstream. While some people may be think that Open Source in general could make the leap, I don't think that's what's happening and I don't think it's a reasonable goal. I think the acceptance of individual tools (eg Firefox) are not only the beachhead but they also begin crafting public opinion around them. The vast majority of Firefox (or Linux, Eclipse, etc, etc) users will ever care that the source is available. They won't care that they can fix errors. They simply don't have the knowledge, skills, or ability to do it themselves and the vast majority don't know how to ask those who do.

Instead, these tools begin to set an agenda because they work and (generally) they work well. Even more than that is the fact that most of these systems have plugins or extensions that customize functionality for what you need. The most stunning example to me was on my previous (Windows XP) laptop. Just a few months ago, the system offered to upgrade itself to IE7 so I could get tabbed browsing. I don't know about the rest of the world, but I've used Mozilla, et al, since 2002 and have had tabbed browsing for most of that. In fact, I've become so dependent on it, I can't imagine a browser without it.

Regardless, I don't expect concepts such as “Open Source” to really hit the mainstream beyond the occassional slightly clueless reference. I certainly don't even expect to hear anything resembling understanding. Instead, I do expect two things to happen: a) people will discover some of the great tools out there and b) companies will have to work to earn our dollars instead of being the default choice.