GitHub’s New Atom Text Editor Is Open Source, Sort Of, Though Not Really


Matt Asay

February 28, 2014

Samuel Greenwald claims that "any IT leader who can't grasp an open source mindset is doomed to fail." While this may be true, people can be forgiven for not fully grokking open source, given the weird licensing gyrations that even the most open source savvy among us can go through.

Take GitHub, for example. GitHub just released its Atom text editor to much acclaim. While some lauded Atom as "completely open source," it's not. Not even close. 

Kind Of, Sort Of Open Source

Not that GitHub is dressing up Atom as open source. Not all of it, anyway. As GitHub co-founder Tom Preston-Werner specifies, only "Atom core" code will be closed source, while "all the existing MIT-licensed repos under the Atom org will remain so forever." The reasons are purely commercial, as he notes:

Atom won't be closed source, but it won't be open source either. It will be somewhere in-between, making it easy for us to charge for Atom while still making the source available under a restrictive license so you can see how everything works. We haven't finalized exactly how this will work yet. We will have full details ready for the official launch.

Back in the early days of open source, we had a name for this. Actually, Microsoft did. It was called "Shared Source." Launched in 2002, Shared Source was Microsoft's way of giving its community a way to look but not touch (or redistribute) Microsoft's code. It didn't go so well for Microsoft, as SAP's Big Data chief Vijay Vijayasankar reminds us, but GitHub might do better:

@dberkholz I remember the OSI peeps criticized MS quite heavily that it is a marketing stunt . But GitHub might make it alright this time

— Vijay Vijayasankar (@vijayasankarv) February 27, 2014

He might be right.

The GitHub Generation Can't Be Bothered

Microsoft, after all, was the evil empire, smearing open source as a "cancer," among other things. GitHub? It's the foster parent for open source projects everywhere. In 2013 GitHub topped 10 million repositories and 3 million new users, with frenetic weekly activity: 20,000 issues, 50,000 comments, and 250,000 pushes on repositories maintained by contributors all over the world. 

GitHub is, in other words, ground zero for open source.

Perhaps because of this, GitHub is getting a free pass. In the HackerNews commentary on the move, few seem to be too bothered that GitHub isn't actually opening up Atom. As a community, open source has largely won out over free software: less dogmatic, more practical. We've come to the point that many in the so-called "GitHub generation" don't even bother to assign a license to their software at all. 

Is this a good thing?

It's hard to say, and even harder to argue with GitHub's approach given that it doesn't seem to be hurting anyone and potentially helps many by giving the world a high-quality, low-cost text editor. The open-source community is increasingly libertarian: less likely to prescribe licensing and more concerned with good code and good products.

It's why GitHub, Atlassian and Amazon Web Services, which all rely on proprietary software or services to make money, can be so phenomenally popular with open-source developers.

Have we finally grown up?

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