Updated: Feb 8, 2020
Wouldn't it be nice if you could use a word processor and customize it to handle the marketing workflows in your business? Wouldn't it be nice if a rural farmer in Africa could access software that helps yield and manage his own, unique crops? Or, what if a student from an inner-city school could attain better class notes and subject material from a larger peer network? Imagine a world where anyone could access anything. A world with tools available to anyone who could use them to build solutions tailored towards the needs of a community.
Welcome to the world of open source. In this blog, I'll explain more about open source and discuss why it is a great model for fostering creativity and innovation since the technology involved engages a dedicated and passionate community of developers and users to organically grow around open-source tools.
What is Open Source?
Open source generally refers to knowledge that is publicly accessible and modifiable by anyone. It has primarily gained traction within the field of technology where open source software enables developers from various locations and organizations to share, develop, and distribute programs. With the source code being freely available to the wider world, there are no license fees or restrictions on the software. Open source differs from "closed" source software, or proprietary software, in that it is not publicly accessible or available and is typically sold to other individuals or organizations. The public cannot see or modify the code, using it almost exactly how it is packaged.
Now, as an approach toward innovation, the open source model thrives upon collaboration, experimentation, prototyping, and accessibility among technology developers and technology users. Some popular open source platforms include Linux and Ubuntu operating systems that are able to be downloaded by users as many times as possible and on any device ("Open Collaborative Design", 2010). The OS is also capable of being customized for larger and more powerful computing functions. Open source software has also taken the shape of many other forms as well, including web browsers, graphic file formats, and cloud storage. With all of its uses, open source software invites curiosity to drive new products and system improvements.
Overall, open source software is a great tool for achieving the goal of making technology available to everyone. According to a report by Gartner, "95 percent of mainstream IT organizations leverage nontrivial open-source software assets within their mission-critical IT portfolios - whether they know it or not" (Carey and Macaulay, 2019). This enables more developers in organizations of various scales to develop products for a larger number of market segments.
Open Source and Innovation
Open-source software also allows developers to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and by creating their own software given the base software infrastructure. For example, Android and Chrome OS are both operating systems that were built on Linux and other open-source software. According to a report done by NetMarketShare, of the 250 million PCs sold every year, 1.84 percent were running Linux while only 0.29 percent were running Chrome OS. Nowadays, there are over three hundred Linux distributions that modify software to solve various business and consumer cases. Some of these products are designed and developed for the Linux operating system and others for some special purposes such as cluster computing, network routers, or hand-held devices. As a result, Linux has created a community of developers who use its code base to distribute new services each day. This community can respond to issues with solutions, bug fixes, and long-term development planning in a fairly rapid manner. It attracts talent. For example, Github is essentially a social network for programmers to share their projects along with the source code for fellow programmers to view new code submissions and download them (Mason 2016). Technology developers can discuss software features and propose changes, increasing productivity and functionality for both individuals and organizations.
Aside from software, open source can take the form of scientific research or data that is made available to a larger community. Scientists can host or publish raw data from studies as well as detailed logs of procedures, results, measurements, and other useful information ("Open Collaborative Design", 2010). Moreover, the open source community allow individuals to meet their own needs, but also provides societal returns to the users that contribute to its pooled funds and coordinated investment. Developers are incentivized to innovate and collaborate as they ultimately receive more benefits from a constantly improving product.
Figure 1: Open Source Model - Starts with the developer with the original source code which leads to multiple developers building upon its foundations with new or improved features (Paula 2004).
While open source is a very effective model in delivering new ideas at a rapid level throughout a community, it poses its own risks for innovation. Firstly, being community-driven and very open ended in its technical capabilities, open source software may require additional support that is typically already addressed in proprietary software. Additionally, many companies that promote open source software, like Red Hat, charge based on the technology support requested while proprietary software companies provide those services for free (Volpi 2019). Another reason is that unlike proprietary software, which is tested extensively for user-friendliness, open source software is often written by and for computer professionals. Therefore, the average individual might not be able to navigate troubleshooting as easily as in closed source software programs. Lastly, a major issue of concern for open source software is that of privacy. Being open and available to all, open source software is vulnerable to hacking and viruses which may be preemptively supported in closed source programs.
Although these factors pose risks, open source has the potential to provide more opportunity for tinkerers all around the world to come up with new solutions. It extends the scope for talented programmers, engineers, and technology developers to collaborate with other like-minded people and thereby evolving technology to be more effective, efficient, and comprehensive (Volpi 2019). In addition, by providing open licenses to software, open source permits smaller companies to use accessible tools to build new products and services that can be beneficial to the local economy.
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Creating better technology with open source - Red Hat. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.redhat.com/en/about/open-source
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