In defence of open source
There’s never been a better time to begin developing open-source software. By Craig Raw.
The Internet world changes quickly. Open source, the practice of promoting free redistribution and access to an end product’s implementation, was little known and often unpopular.
Just a few years ago, it was common to see debates on open- vs closed-source approaches to software development, with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously likening open source to a cancer.
Today, the benefits of open source, briefly summed up in “transparency leads to a better product”, are well accepted, even at Microsoft, and there is more open-source software being written than ever before, for a wider variety of applications and in more languages. This article is however not about using open source – it’s about creating it.
Let us not be shy about the fact that most companies exist to make a profit. In today’s competitive environment, why would companies consider contributing their employees’ time and effort with little hope of direct financial reward?
Looking back, I can’t say that my company had the answer to that question when we began — it simply seemed right to contribute, given the enormous advantages we gained from being able to run free software in a world dominated by expensive (Microsoft) licensing. Today, I’m proud to say we have a long history of contributions, from patches to projects, and I’m certain it was the right call.
If you are working in the knowledge industry, and particularly in the professional services industry, you know that people are your chief asset. Finding and keeping the best people should be right up there on your list of priorities. If you are involved in the digital industry, you know that the speed of change demands that your business be adaptable. And to be adaptable you need to be innovative.
My contention is that the most innovative Web software being written today is open source because the people writing it have recognised this is best way to get it used, improved and publicised. If your aim is to have the best people creating the most innovative products, it’s difficult to ignore, and if you are involved in creating Web software, ignoring it is positively dangerous.
Consider Github, a world-leading code repository, at least in terms of popularity. It is rare to see a new project discussed on Hacker News that’s not hosted on Github. In Silicon Valley job postings, it’s common to see a candidate’s Github profile listed as a requirement for application. Of course, none of this would make sense unless the code was open, and Github promotes exactly that – all of its services are for free, as long as your project’s code is public.
So your team benefits from participating in the frameworks and libraries that shape the web, and you benefit from the knowledge they bring back. In addition, they have the skills to adapt those products to the company’s specific needs. Plus, there is a great deal of goodwill and publicity that can come from a significant open-source contribution – in fact it can turn a marginal product into a successful one based on marketing value alone.
Best of all, it’s easy to get started. Lurk on a developer mailing list, fork a project’s code and submit a patch, and select one of a variety of well-documented open-source licences for your own project. Even if you are not directly involved in creating software, consider open-sourcing other kinds of intellectual property — at Quirk, for example, we’ve licensed our digital marketing textbook under a Creative Commons Attribution licence for years. The lost revenue we may have made from selling it is more than made up for by the number of people who have experienced their first taste of digital marketing with a Quirk flavour. It’s even possible to open-source hardware design, as the increasingly popular electronic platform Arduino demonstrates.
The business model is defined by a base layer of useful open source, with the developer selling services or additional innovations. At a global level, it’s becoming so pervasive that the open-source options in many areas of software architecture compare well to their proprietary peers, or even lead — the text search engine library Lucene is a good example.
A world where margins on intellectual property sales increasingly tend towards zero may seem scary, but embracing this model and the innovation it encourages is a viable option. In fact, in many markets it may become the only viable option. It’s a good time to get started.
- Craig Raw is chief technology officer at Quirk