Open Source: Ubiquity or Ambiguity

Lately I have been hearing people use the term open source to refer to all sorts of things that are not really open source under the traditional definition. My favorite definition of open source comes from Bruce Perens in Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. His actual definition is several pages long, but the gist of it is this: Open source refers to software that is licensed to allow developers to view and / or modify the source code and redistribute the software without restriction.

I have heard people use open source to mean giving something away for free. This highlights an ambiguity in the English language: “free” can mean both gratis (no cost) and libre (freedom). In the case of open source, the second meaning, libre, is considered more important than whether or not someone charges for the software. Richard Stallman frequently explains free software as “free as in free speech, not free beer.”

Others have been using the term open source to refer to the development process, whether or not the end product is open source using the traditional definition. I ran across this issue recently in an article about how Malcolm Gladwell was using the term to refer to the process of making cookies. The open source development process is a bit different from the traditional, hierarchical development processes used in most corporations. This was best explained by Eric Raymond in The Cathedral & the Bazaar. However, it is not an entirely new concept, since it has roots in the academic development process where researchers collaborate, use each other’s research, and rely on peer review for quality control.

Getting back to the title of this blog, Open Source: Ubiquity or Ambiguity, I am torn between whether the ubiquity of the term open source is a good development meaning that we have finally moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream or whether the ambiguity inherent in how people use open source will dilute the meaning of the term.

Linux Social Experiment

In response to “Linux Social Experiment…People have NO clue”

I encourage you to read this guy’s blog. He did a little experiment to find out what would happen if he used the street beggar model to help people. He went to a street corner with a sign, but rather than begging for food, money, etc. he gave out free Linux CDs.

The most fascinating part of this experiment had to do with how people perceived his actions. He held a sign that read: “Stop paying for the privilege of using your computer. Get your free Linux disks here. Ask scroungy-looking guy for details.” Most people passing by averted their eyes or handed him money (assuming that he was a beggar) without ever reading his sign! He had better luck after the morning rush hour when people took more time to notice the sign, and he finally did manage to give away his CDs.

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Is Firefox Safer?

Response to “Is Firefox the new target for hackers?”

It is true that as more people begin to use any software product, Firefox in this case, people will write viruses and other software to exploit vulnerabilities. Over time, we will see more and more programs that exploit Firefox vulnerabilities. Lucky for us, the Firefox community quickly responds to these threats with fixes and product updates. This is the benefit of having a vigilant open source community behind a product. Because the people in the Firefox community are active users and evangelists for Firefox, they are highly motivated to fix issues quickly.

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Evolution of the Open Source Culture

Open source software evolved out of work at universities with a community of developers who were expected to share source code in the same way that academic researchers share their research through publication. When software started to move toward a proprietary licensing model, the open source movement took root as a way to keep the source code available to developers.

The open source culture has a foundation in a peer review system of meritocracy similar to academic / university communities. In academic publishing, authors must convince a panel of expert reviewers that their research articles are relevant, technically correct, and worthy of being published in a particular publication. The open source community functions in a similar manner. Open source developers must convince a group of peers that their contribution is relevant, technically correct, and worthy of being included in the project source code.

In the early days of open source software, communities were made up of enthusiastic volunteers who contributed to projects during their free time as an evenings and weekends effort. As open source gained market share and traction within corporations, more companies started to sponsor developers. These corporate developers are paid by an organization to contribute full-time to an open source project. Notable examples include Linus Torvalds (OSDL) and Michael “Monty” Widenius (MySQL). As a result of this evolution, open source projects are increasingly being used within corporations for important functions, and innovation is accelerating at a more rapid pace as people spend more time contributing to open source.

There are 2 great books that cover the history and the culture of open source:

The Collaborative Nature of OSS

Mozilla Thunderbird gets Firefox-style tabs

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This is the great thing about open source software. People build on each other’s ideas to come up with new ways to solve their problems. I don’t have the details, but it would be interesting to know whether they reused any of the Firefox tab code or whether the ability to look at the Firefox code made it easier to write the Thunderbird tabs. Please feel free to leave a comment if you have the answer to this question.

Linux on the Desktop

The Chicken, the Egg and the Linux Desktop

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Vaughan-Nichols makes a good point in his article that we do have most of the basics with Linux on the desktop – a GUI desktop interface, basic office products, Firefox, and other applications. For many users, especially those that rely on their computer for email and web surfing, this is most or all of what they need.

There are still a few gaps. People tend to have one or two apps that they “just cannot possibly live without.” Vaughan-Nichols used Intuit QuickBooks as his example. Right or wrong, the unavailability of these apps will keep certain people from migrating to Linux.

Another gap is vendor support. Too many hardware vendors don’t release drivers for Linux in a timely manner. While this isn’t a big deal for techies who can either write a driver or find and install one from the Internet, this would be a big deal for someone like my mom, who wouldn’t know what to do if her printer didn’t immediately work when connected (no plug-and-play).

For now, Linux on the desktop will probably be most popular with the techies, but as it continues to gain traction, more and more people will get on board.

Open source innovation or communism

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 ( instead of an IP address made up of a series of numbers ( 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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Global Open Source: It’s not all about cost

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.

Women in Open Source

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).

Democratizing Innovation and Linux

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.

Open source, Linux kernel research, online communities and other stuff I'm interested in posting.