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The Open Source Philosophy

by Kazeem Olalekan CEO Iforg Limited

A recent piece by John Naughton of the Observer on the Public apathy over GCHQ snooping and his anecdote about how he tried to convince his lay audience about the concept of ‘open source’ got me really thinking about this. Furthermore, the launch of our net-projects website this month and the implication of some of the posts on open source is glaring. The statistics provided by Mohammad Khamash of Jordan Open Source Association is rather compelling. So if this is a recipe, I want to use this piece to cook you an open source meal and demonstrate why open source is a force for societal good. And by the way…doing good is our philosophy at Iforg.

Our company prides itself on doing good through strategic use of Information Technology to deliver healthcare solutions. We explore meaning using the universal truths framework. We can provide professional engagement in areas of project management, strategic analysis, web development and healthcare resourcing. We manage projects of varying complexity in house that satisfy our project implementation strategy.

A brief History of Open Source

Open Source can generally now be considered as sharing something ‘openly’ in accordance with an open standard.  The only problem is that people define open standards in different ways. For the sake of argument here, I will go with the European Union definition:

Open Standards are formats or protocols that are:

a) subject to full public assessment and use without constraints in a manner equally available to all parties;

b) without any components or extensions that have dependencies on formats or protocols that do not meet the definition of an Open Standard themselves;

c) free from legal or technical clauses that limit its utilisation by any party or in any business model;

d) managed and further developed independently of any single vendor in a process open to the equal participation of competitors and third parties;

e) available in multiple complete implementations by competing vendors, or as a complete implementation equally available to all parties

In effect, it precludes open standards requiring fees for use. This begs the question: How the hell do you make money from this? This is at the heart of the controversies that later threatened to  engulfed this philosophical way of thinking. I will touch on this later.

It is clear that sharing ‘something’ freely pre-dates the internet and computer revolution. I think, as humans, we are hard-wired to share freely in a sustainable way. What is the point of sharing to such an extent that you cannot even feed your family? That is clearly not sustainable and will soon unravel. That is why different open standard definitions emphasise different aspects of openness (i.e. not only that it is free).  The massive boost  however, in the open source revolution came in 1998 when a group of people in the free software movement met at a strategy session held at Palo Alto, California, in reaction to Netscape’s January 1998 announcement of a source code release for Navigator and adopted the ‘open source’ label (ref 1) – we all like labels, don’t we?

In Steve Jobs’ biography, author Walter Isaacson, described how Steve will fume over how Bill Gates nicked the Windows ideas whilst also recognising that the mouse-driven User Interface was first developed in the creative labs of Xerox. Today we have technology behemoths that are: Microsoft and Apple.  Clearly we make advances as a race when we share things. That is why dissemination of research finding is integral to the research process. And a reason why I had to share the results of my case study (ref 2).

Today, open source ‘owns the web’.

Today we define open source as a development model that promotes a) universal access via free license to a product’s design or blueprint, and b) universal redistribution of that design or blueprint, including subsequent improvements to it by anyone. Researchers view open source as a specific case of the greater pattern of Open Collaboration, “any system of innovation or production that relies on goal-oriented yet loosely coordinated participants, who interact to create a product (or service) of economic value, which they make available to contributors and non-contributors alike” (ref 3).

Wonder why it was so easy to give you this summary of open source? – Wikipedia! The launch of Wikipedia in 2001 was an important catalyst for spreading knowledge and information. In spite of some high profile mis-information, Wikipedia remain a remarkably cerebral resource. Once the mind is fed, everything else follow. Co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales describe his thoughts on freedom in the video below:

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
Thomas Jefferson


The Controversies

As far as labels go, the most significant controversy with open-source is the label that it is a communist plot championed by those who want to topple capitalism (ref 4).  This has been countered as a red herring (ref 5) and that the open process encourages innovation and decreases bug. There is also this perception early on, that propriety products are more secure and takes place in a more controlled environment. This is the echo of the earlier battle between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates on whether to license or not to license their software’s. In any case, the open philosophy, superseded that battle and makes licensing even more critical. If this is a matter of transparency, irrespective of whether, I am charged for using it or not, then I will always opt for transparency of code. In any case, we now discover that there was not just back doors to some of these softwares, but rather more like gaping chasms (ref 6, ref 7, ref 8).

Other controversies have also serve to concentrate the open-source community mind. Notable amongst this is the ‘Mambo open source controversy’ of 2005, that eventually led to the acrimonious split between key members of the Mambo Open Source team and community. The result is the creation of Joomla CMS.

All these controversies have helped to focus the minds of the key participants in the open source movement.

My experience

Whilst all these big battles between the giants that are Microsoft and Apple; and the big personalities that are Bill Gates and Steve Jobs was going on, the open source community was trying to find its feet. Then there was this little less well known company called Google saying we just want to organise the vast amount of information that are increasingly available on the net in a smart way. As they master the value of that information, they started to monitise it. Then they started to develop their own products. Once it was right they shipped but they don’t claim perfection of the products – only that it was beta release. Then they let people tell them what they liked and disliked about the product and make changes. That company is a little bigger now and it was that model that really caught my attention earlier on in my IT career. As I have mentioned in another post, Windows was my first in-road into personal computing but it was getting really difficult for someone that just wanted to learn, like myself, to get the right tools to develop because of cost barriers. The society, as I will later discover, is inherently flawed (duh!). The cost of acquiring these skills was excluding those who are keenest to learn and probably innovate  but with limited to no financial resources. Gradually over time, my diet of Microsoft-based products was slowly wrenched out of me by Google. I still like Microsoft, and I am sure it is learning a great lesson from not bringing down the cost barrier sooner. In actual fact I like them all. I love technology and will support the different models when I can. A little competition is usually good.

My support for open source stems therefore, from the philosophy to break down societal barriers to knowledge and tools. And to the few that make it to the top, remember that the tools were not free (in the absolute sense that there was no cost attached to it); they were open….and that is a laudable landmark we have today. Always remember to give something back!

There is now a tension between those that want to keep things closed and those, like me, that rather prefers things open. I can do close – only when it is absolutely necessary. We need to avoid building the infrastructure of a police state because it is easier to abuse it. Now, how about that ‘Internet Magna Carta’.

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