Part I and II of this series focused on two interconnected elements of the “global by nature” theme: people and products. The people are developers. The products are APIs.

This Part III focuses on the “global by nature” paradigm -- open source. While I’ve written about open source in many different places on Interconnected, as well as other places on the Internet, I have never framed it as a paradigm.

Because there are many conflating framing about open source, it’s important we see it in the right light, in order to fully understand and appreciate its impact on the technology-driven Globalization 2.0.

Paradigm, Not Product

Let’s first talk about what open source is *not*. It is not a product you can sell, and it is not a business model to execute.

While this observation isn’t new, it still runs contrary to the belief and action of many people who participate in the open source ecosystem, including people running commercial open source companies, mistakenly hoping to directly “sell” open source traction somehow to make money.

As I wrote last year in

This mistake gets repeated...because it's hard to mentally conceptualize how and why a commercial product should be different when the open source project is already being used widely.

The paradox in open source lies in the fact that traction and usage do not directly translate to commercial value, but it is the foundation of value creation, especially for developers and APIs (more on this below).

So now let’s conceptualize what open source is (and could become). It is:

  • an innovation model
  • a large-scale collaboration process
  • a distribution mechanism
  • a source of learning
  • a worldview

As you can see, this list of attributes is not tied to a specific industry, region, country, or even technology form factor (e.g. software vs hardware). It is simply a way of doing things and seeing the world. That's what makes open source a paradigm.

So what makes this paradigm “global by nature”? In “COVID, Open Source, Industrial Policy”, when discussing how open source can help with COVID contact tracing and fuel a country’s industrial advancement, I wrote:

All open source technologies have a global reach, because the code base is public, transparent, and accessible to any person with an Internet connection. She can download the codebase to run, copy, modify, and distribute it however she likes. There is no “going global”; you are global from Day 1.

This global reach is also one of the main reasons why the open source paradigm tends to produce more robust and secure technologies more quickly. When done right, having the whole world download, test, deploy, and debug -- something only an open source project can pull off -- is extraordinarily powerful.

Foundation for Developers and APIs

Although open source itself isn’t a product or business, its investment and opportunity potential is vast, because it is the foundation for the two elements that will power the world's technology-driven economy in the next decade and beyond: developers and APIs.

Developers: as I laid out in Part I of this series, developers are the single most important demographic that will shape Globalization 2.0, and its global persona is motivated by two types of needs: utilitarian and communal. To fulfill each of these needs, developers rely on open source.

The utilitarian angle is rather obvious. When a developer needs to solve a problem, whether for work or a side project, 999 out of 1000 times she ends up choosing an open source solution. When a developer wants to learn about a technology, whether to satisfy some curiosity or stay sharp and stave off the half-life of engineering knowledge, she will also turn to open source, because the code that implements the projects is entirely transparent. There is no better way to learn about technology than to see how something is implemented, then try to re-implement or re-engineer it yourself. Open source is the best way for developers to learn. This hands-on learning is often combined with academic papers; historically and unsurprisingly, academia was the first institution to embrace the open source paradigm.

The communal angle is more subtle, but no less powerful. Enabled by a combination of Slack/Discord/WeChat/Zhihu, StackOverflow, Slack/Discord, HackerNews, and quite a bit of Twitter, developers organically form their own communities and tribes that revolve around technologies, most of which are open sourced. Prior to these platforms, lively open source communities materialized on email listservs -- many projects still operate that way. The global developer network effect phenomenon that we are witnessing wouldn’t be so “global” without open source.

In short, open source and developer communities feed into each other, but it doesn’t always work out. Human beings, with all our faults and foibles, are still the main agents of action despite the substance being about technology. But when it does work, the open source communal effect is undeniably powerful.

APIs: the best-designed APIs are developer-focused, self-service, and pay as you use -- making it arguably the most valuable product form factor.

How APIs are built and implemented are just like any other technology these days -- leveraging open source building blocks. This does not necessarily mean that all API products open source their underlying implementation. Some do, like MongoDB. Others don’t, like Twilio and Agora. All are successful in their own way. However, I can see more future API product startups open source their underlying implementations to take advantage of the global developer network effect that comes with the open source paradigm. This approach would not dilute their commercial potential. As we discussed in Part II, APIs are sellable products, not open source code, so the question to decide whether to open source or not isn’t “why”, but “why not?”

Because of these tight interconnections between open source, developers, and APIs, open source based startups are a growing category of investment opportunities.

If you are interested in the commercial open source startup rabbit hole, I recommend you read Glenn Solomon (of GGV Capital)’s series of articles on this topic (he’s one of the most prolific open source investors), and blog posts on COSS Media, written by Joseph Jacks, myself, and other colleagues at OSS Capital.

More Giving, Less Copyrighting?

Let’s return to the worldview of open source -- its most influential characteristic. Besides being transparent, accessible, free, and vendor-neutral, open source also espouses a strong “gift culture”, which overlaps strongly with the “hacker culture.”

Eric Raymond, one of the founding members of the open source movement, wrote a profound essay called “The Hacker Milieu as Gift Culture” in the 90s. He explained in the essay that the open source hacker culture is predicated on the “gift culture”, where one gains status and respect by giving away work product and creativity.

This ethos challenged the proprietary, IP-oriented approach to innovation. It’s fair to say that the open source paradigm has “won the war.” While its impact is most noticeable in software, this “giving worldview” is also seeping into other technology domains and subject matters. Here’s a list of examples:

open source 3D printer
open source VR headset

To be clear, most of these non-software open source categories are in their early days. The pace by which open source will influence the incumbent, proprietary vendors will be uneven and hard to predict. To add another wrinkle: although the war might have been won, there’s still one big battle ahead that intertwines developers, APIs, and open source: Google vs. Oracle.

This is the lawsuit between the two tech giants over the copyrightability of the Java APIs that were used to build the open source Android mobile operating system. This 10-year-long battle may finally reach a conclusion; the Supreme Court of the US will deliver its verdict during the first week of its 2020-21 term.

The outcome of this decision will be monumental in the short-term. If the Oracle story wins the day, it could set off a cascading series of events that leads to more copyrighting, less collaborating, more taking, less giving.

In a way, this scenario resembles the nativist energy that reacted to Globalization 1.0, where free trade both created unprecedented wealth and lifted millions out of poverty, and produced unimaginable inequality and disrupted the incumbents’ comfort zone.

But just like how globalization is morphing into its technology-drive 2.0, the open source paradigm will morph accordingly as well. Just like globalization, open source is also a genie that will never be put back into the bottle.

And if your time horizon is 10 years or longer, like mine, then the challenge we face isn’t choosing a winner between open and closed, but who within the open world can appeal to developers, build valuable APIs, and leverage the open source paradigm.

ICYMI: please give the other three parts of the "Global by Nature" series a read: developers, APIs, public companies to watch.

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本系列的第一和第二篇集中讨论了 "生来全球化" 主题的两个相互关联的要素:人和产品。人即是开发人员,产品即是API。

这第三篇的题目是 "生来全球化" 的模式,即开源。虽然我在《互联》以及网上其他地方写了很多关于开源的文章,但还从来没有把它当作一种模式来探讨过。




虽然这个观点并不新鲜,但它仍然与许多参与开源生态的人,包括经营开源公司的人的信念和行动背道而驰。许多人还在错误地期望以某种方式直接 "卖" 开源来赚钱。





  • 一种创新模式
  • 大规模协作过程
  • 散发机制
  • 学习科技知识的来源
  • 世界观


那么又是什么让这种模式具有 “生来全球化” 的特征呢?在《COVID、开源、工业政策》一文中,在讨论开源技术如何能支持COVID接触者追踪,并助推一个国家的工业进步时,我曾写到:







社区这个角度更加微妙些,但影响力同样强大。在GitHub/GitLab、StackOverflow、Slack/Discord/微信/知乎、HackerNews以及相当一部分在Twitter上的推动下,开发者会自然而然围绕感兴趣的技术来建立各种社区和部落,其中绝大部分都是开源技术。在有这些平台和工具之前,开源社区一般建立在邮件服务器,现在还有许多项目仍用这种方式运作。如果没有开源,我们所看到的全球开发者网络效应就不会如此 "全球化"。



当前所有API背后的构建和实现方式和其他技术一样,都是利用开源作为基石。这并不一定意味着所有API产品都会将其代码开源。有些会,比如MongoDB。有些不会,比如Twilio和声网。这几个公司各自都很成功。然而,我可以预想到未来更多以API做产品化的创业公司会把背后的代码都开源,来充分利用开源模式带来的全球开发者网络效应。这种做法不会冲淡公司的商业潜力。正如在系列第二篇中所讨论的,API才是可销售的产品,而不是开源代码,因此决定是否开源时应该问的问题不是 "为什么要开源",而是 "为什么不开源"?


有对开源创业和商业化这个“无底洞”感兴趣的朋友,我推荐Glenn Solomon(GGV Capital)关于这个话题写的一系列文章(他是业界里投资开源创业公司最活跃的投资人之一),以及由Joseph Jacks、我、和OSS Capital的其他同事在COSS Media上写的博文。


让我们回到开源的世界观 -- 它最有影响力的一点。除了透明、易用、免费、厂商中立之外,开源还崇尚所谓的 "贡献文化",与 "黑客文化" 有着强烈的重合。

开源运动的创始人之一 Eric Raymond 在90年代写了一篇深刻的文章《黑客境界里的“贡献文化”》。他在文章中解释说,开源黑客文化是建立在一种“贡献文化””的基础上,在“贡献文化”中,人们通过无偿赠送自己的工作成果和创造来获得地位和尊重。



需要说明的是,这些非软件类的开源项目大多还处于早期阶段,开源对现有厂商的影响速度也将是不均衡且很难预测的。还有一件事情必须注意:虽然 “战争” 可能打完了,但还有大大小小的搏斗,最大的一场就是谷歌对甲骨的官司,将牵扯到所有开发者、API和开源技术。

这两家科技巨头之间的诉讼是关于使用开源构建起来的安卓移动操作系统的Java API的版权纠纷。这场已经打了十年的官司可能即将就会有结论了;美国最高法院将在2020-21年判决期的第一周宣布判决。