The Open Source Initiative has served as the key steward of open source software since its formation in 1998. In September 2021, the Open Source Initiative board hired Stefano Maffulli as its first Executive Director. I recently interviewed Stefano to learn more about him and his vision for the Open Source Initiative.
Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background in open source software?
I started my career as an architect, trained to design cities and buildings. I realized early in my career that software has the power to influence outcomes in architectures: some designs from the archistars are possible because of the software they use. When I started using CAD and GIS software at the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, I first noticed they were hard to procure and hard to use. Managing license keys alone was a job. Also, after acquiring those packages I still had to write code in order to be productive.
I realized that software was going to both allow and prevent me from doing my job well. Also, software was too hard to buy and use despite being very expensive. There had to be a better way. I started looking into alternatives and I stumbled upon the GNU project and its manifesto. Then I discovered Linux, a GIS tool called GRASS and more. Such free/libre software was not always functionally better than proprietary alternatives but felt "right" to me: a much better philosophical approach to developing the science of computing.
I started advocating for free and open source software then, and never stopped.
What attracted you to the Executive Director role?
I always wanted to go back to contributing to open source organizations. I saw the opening at the Open Source Initiative at the right time in my career. I left my role at Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) to gain more experience in the corporate world. Working for international companies, I learned skills and operated at a scale that few open source organizations can see. As I progressed through the selection process, the Open Source Initiative's board became convinced that I'd contribute positively to a community that helped me my whole career and that I'd have fun doing it.
What do you see as the biggest challenges in open source today? What should the Open Source Initiative's role be in addressing those challenges?
The biggest challenge for open source is managing its success. Open source is today the primary mode to develop and distribute applications. Governments, medical systems, financial payments, social interactions all depend on open source software: it's the backbone of our global digital society. Most software components use open source licenses.
The Open Source Initiative's role as the steward of the Open Source Definition is to keep the ecosystem true to its founding principles, foster collaboration, and lead conversations among stakeholders. Our priority is to map the environment in which open source communities operate, understand the new legal challenges, technical evolutions, new business pressures, government requirements. Only with a clear understanding of our surroundings will we be able to chart a course for the next twenty years.
Many organizations leverage or use open source software. How will the Open Source Initiative engage with these organizations?
While open source is used everywhere, only a small percentage of people are familiar with the principles of open source software. For example, there isn't enough understanding of how open source projects become commercial products or how to effectively collaborate with open source communities and customers to improve their software.
At the Open Source Initiative, we're aware of this knowledge gap. In 2020, we started a partnership with Brandeis University to offer a certification program on Open Source Technology Management to start bridging that gap. It's a small start and together with the Board of Directors, we're discussing other initiatives for 2022 to educate, train, and inform a wider audience.
Looking ahead, open source will continue to evolve. What are the challenges, and what do you see as the Open Source Initiative's role in meeting those future challenges?
I see a few technology trends that have already emerged and are already posing important questions for the Open Source Initiative. First is the move to the next generation of cloud computing; in particular, I'm thinking of serverless architectures. It's a fairly young piece of technology and I think the open source communities still need to fully understand the implications of depending on such proprietary technologies. As more code moves to the cloud, we may end up with the sort of lock-ins that open source promised to remove over twenty years ago.
[Read next: Why it's important to keep the cloud open]
The other innovation that I think needs further exploration is on machine learning/artificial intelligence. These disciplines blur the line between software and data. Think of when the Free Software Foundation and Debian disagreed over the binary-only blobs used by some wireless cards' drivers. For Debian, blobs are data that free software drivers can load without tainting the Free Software Guidelines. The FSF thinks instead that the blob is software. That debate is now petabytes larger considering that vast datasets are needed to study, run, modify and distribute ML/AI systems: where do we cut the line between data and software?
I also look with interest at the world of distributed, trustless computing built on blockchain technology. I'm not sure yet what the implications are for open source but the fact that you can embed contracts (licenses) as code and have machines execute those contracts without human interpretation sure is fascinating.
The other set of challenges for open source is of a more social nature. Even though they're not new, they're still not universally solved: how to remunerate project maintainers? How to fund sustainable development of open source software? How to build inclusive communities around open source projects?
The Open Source Initiative is in the unique position of being a neutral space to host conversations, convene the multiple voices of these communities and we look forward to doing just that.
Thank you to Stefano for this interview. You can read more about Stefano and his previous experience at the Open Source Initiative's announcement of the new Executive Director from September 2021.