From ‘Don’t listen to Bill Gates. The open-source movement isn’t communism.’
“This month, SAP’s Shai Agassi referred to open-source software as “intellectual property socialism.” In January, Bill Gates suggested that free-software developers are communists. A few years earlier, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called the open-source operating system Linux “a cancer.”
The above story makes some interesting points about open source and innovation. The article correctly points out that “The Web owes its existence to open source” with Apache driving 70% of web servers, for example. The networking protocol (DNS) that allow us to type in convenient web site names (Amazon.com) instead of an IP address made up of a series of numbers (126.96.36.199) is based on open source software. The internet was based on these types of open source software to become one of the biggest innovations of the past few decades. Without open source software, we might not have the internet. On other hand, we might have missed the dot-com bust, too … hmmm.
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I read an interesting report this week in ZDNet UK that supports my longstanding position that cost is only part of a government’s decision to move to open source. Many reasons for the adoption of open source software within certain countries relate to cultural and political factors. Of course, cost is one consideration; however, it is not the only consideration, and it may not be the most important one.
Because developers have access to the source code, open source software becomes a good method for building a local software ecosystem and can provide a boost to the local economy. As governments and companies begin to use open source software, local software development and support companies begin to form. These local companies can support the open source software, provide consulting services, localize the software into additional languages, and perform other development tasks. This boosts the economy by providing a mechanism for governments and companies to build a local software ecosystem where they pay local companies to do work that would normally have been completed by a large software company like Microsoft or IBM.
This also ties into an anti-American sentiment held by some countries and governments. Some people believe that the United States is already too powerful. By continuing to fund American software and consulting services, some countries are concerned that the United States could become even more powerful. Many governments would like to reduce their dependence on American software to become more independent and self-sufficient as a nation. Open source software (in addition to other local, proprietary software) is one tool that some governments use to address this issue.
I do not necessarily agree with the ZDNet suggestion that open source may be “too close to socialism” for the United States. I suspect that adoption by governments in the United States has lagged due to misperceptions about the security of open source software and other reasons. On the other hand, governments in China, Europe, Brazil, and others are encouraging the use of open source software. Their reasons are varied; however, culture plays a strong role in the desire to use open source. The cultures of some countries (China, India, and Brazil) may simply be more compatible with the open source community mindset. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend reading Open Sources 2.0 edited by Chris DiBona, Danese Cooper, and Mark Stone; it has several chapters on open source usage within particular geographic locations.
While female developers make up about 25% of the total developer population, only 2% of open source developers are women. The open source community and culture has historically been almost entirely male, but a few vocal people within the open source community are trying to get more women involved. Danese Cooper is one of the leading evangelists for women in open source. This is becoming a hot topic at conferences with recent sessions at OSCON, EuroOscon, ApacheCon, and others.
During the time that the community of women in open source have begun to pull together to help support other women involved in open source, the men have begun to get involved as well. Danese referred to this blog from Piers Cawley with an entry in her blog titled ‘Men Who “Get” Women’.
The real question that we need to ask is, “why are there so few women in open source?” followed by, “And what should we do about it?” Is the open source culture really so different from other software communities? Maybe, maybe not. The open source culture is built on a system of meritocracy where any person can become successful based on the merits of the contribution rather than who they are or who they know. Theoretically, women should be on equal footing, but for some reason, women seem to choose not to join open source communities. It will be fascinating to see what kind of success will result from these efforts to get more women involved in open source software.
To get involved, you can join the women in open source mailing list (instructions here).
Open source innovation is often based on user innovations. In Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel describes innovation from a user perspective rather than a corporate perspective. He suggests that many innovations are actually developed by users, freely shared with other interested users, and sometimes picked up later by a company that eventually turns the idea into a business. For those of us working with open source software, this should sound very familiar. In fact, he uses open source software as an example of innovation throughout this book. Firefox is a great example of this phenomenon (see previous blog entry).
Another good example is Linux. Linus Torvalds started Linux in 1991 with an unassuming newsgroup post that mentioned a new operating system that he was creating and solicited input from others. Linux was created not out of any commercial need or ambition, but to satisify Linus’ desire to have a better Unix-like operating system that ran on less expensive (Intel 386) hardware. This was a user innovation that Linus freely revealed to others with a similar interest. As everyone knows, Linux has grown from this unassuming start into a robust operating system used in most corporations. Without Linus’ continued contributions combined with contributions from thousands of other interested users, Linux may never have progressed past a hobby operating system started by a college student. Open source community contributions and user innovations provided the momentum necessary for Linux to quickly become an important technology.
I would encourage people to read Democratizing Innovation by Eric von Hippel. For anyone without time to read the entire book, the majority of the open source content is in chapter 7; however, I recommend reading chapter 1 and chapter 2 to get familiar with the concepts first.
Over the years, I have worked with open source software and have been fascinated by the cultural elements that run in parallel with the technical aspects. Open source software fosters a strong sense of community and a culture of freely shared innovation. Mozilla Firefox, which just celebrated its first birthday, is a great example of this phenomenon. A community of enthusiastic people got together to develop the Firefox browser, and with a focused, but grassroots Spread Firefox campaign, they have reached 100 million downloads and are getting close to 10% of the worldwide browser market. In addition to the many user contributions to the primary Firefox product, user innovations are encouraged through the use of user developed extensions and themes that are freely shared with other users.