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Why open source is good for us all

Back in February, as Technical Director of 6-2 design, I led a discussion about ‘Why open source is good for us all’ at the monthly Canterbury-based Digibury meetup for digital and creative types.

It was great to see how this stance stimulated some really decent questions and conversation, so I’ve done a quick roundup for those of you who are interested in finding out a bit more about open source, how it came about, and how and why it has taken over the world.

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6-2 design’s technical director, Aaron Taylor, talks at Digibury on ‘Why open source is good for us all’.

What is open source?

In a nutshell, open source means you’re able to access source of the software to see how it works, to change it and in many cases to redistribute it. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) define it as ‘a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.’

To kick the discussion off at Digibury, I posed the question ‘What if everything open source disappeared tomorrow?’ Common thinking suggests about 90% of the internet would disappear – but what does this mean for the average person?

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What if all the open source stuff disappeared tomorrow?

If all the open source stuff disappeared tomorrow, you’d wake up late because your alarm wouldn’t have gone off on your Android phone, which would have stopped working. You’d need to let people know you were running late, but your MacBook would be unresponsive. You’d get your old Windows laptop started, but you wouldn’t be able to even connect to the internet. In fact, even if you could connect, you couldn’t do much, because more than 80% of internet servers run on open source software.

You couldn’t check the weather to see what to wear. You’d jump in the car and the radio wouldn’t work. You’d be stuck in a traffic jam because traffic signals would have gone down, but you wouldn’t be able to find a shortcut – you’d have no GPS. A huge chunk of the digital world would stop working, either because it is open source or because the language it is built on is open source.

Why is so much of the world dependent on open source stuff?

To answer this, we need to quickly jump back to 1980 and a pivotal moment in the history of open source.

In 1980, Richard M. Stallman had a problem with the industry’s first laser printer – the Xerox 9700. Richard sat on a different floor to the printer, and found it inconvenient that he didn’t know if the printer was jammed or when his job was printed. He wanted to modify the software to build in notifications for these events, but he was refused access to the source code.

This experience convinced him that people should be free to modify the software they use, and he went on to create the Free Software Movement. In this context, ‘free software’ is about users having the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software – focussing on the concept of liberty rather than price.

In 1998, the Open Source Initiative (OSI) was founded, based on a different stance where the focus is about open source software being a superior model for software development, moving away from the social and ethical arguments against non-free software. However, in reality, nearly all free software is open source, and nearly all open source software is free.

How did this simple movement from humble origins end up running the world?

When you think about it, the way humans tend to operate mirrors open source principles. Arguably we are naturally inclined to use, share, learn, copy and improve on things together so that other people can be part of a community. It’s not surprising then that it’s been so widely adopted, and because it’s so widespread, the barriers to entry are relatively low if you want to join the club which is a good thing.

When we started our digital agency, 6-2 design, we decided that open source was generally the right route for us. One of our key tools is WordPress – an open source Content Management System that enables our clients to easily update their website content, e.g. to add new pages, edit text and upload images. Because WordPress is open source, we don’t pay license fees for the benefit of using it. We can also customise it according to our customers’ needs, and ultimately neither we nor our customers are locked in to a supplier.

With open source you can benefit from new features and updates and the community and associated support. We also rely on other open source software, such as the constantly updated LAMP stack, and are reassured by the fact that there’s a community of people around the world alert at any one time with a common interest in maintaining security and contributing to bug fixes.

On a personal interest level, being able to get involved and contribute to open source software while knowing there isn’t a monetary incentive is beneficial. It gives people a sense of purpose and helps to increase creativity and problem solving skills which positively influence happiness and productivity.

Going back to the everyday scenario, perhaps we could infer that its prevalence in everyday life must be because people choose to go down this route because open source is good for people – good for individuals, good for businesses and good for the world.

Photos from the talk

See some photo highlights below or view the full photo album here.

6-2 design open source talk digibury Feb 2015 (7)

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