With open-source software, anyone has the power to solve business problems, create more effective education programs, and even enact social change.
Just think how open-source software has already changed the world in impactful ways. It quite literally made the World Wide Web possible and pioneered remote collaborative development, which was mainstreamed by the global pandemic. What’s more, today, most of the cloud runs on Linux, putting free software at the heart of almost every contemporary computing resource. And many of the programming languages fueling the growth of software development, such as Python, are also free and open.
So, saying that open source is the bedrock of so much of the technology we use every day — to do our jobs, to learn, to interact with the world — is no understatement. And its impact only continues to grow, democratizing technology today and driving innovation tomorrow.
Open-Source Vs. Free Software
A Brief Timeline of the Open-Source Movement
Before going into the history of the open-source movement, I want to clarify some terminology. The term “open source” implies that the source code is “open,” hence it is available to view and review. Free software, on the other hand, adds the additional requirement that there is a license to make modifications to the code. Although both terms are often used interchangeably, they can be quite different in terms of goals and practice. Strictly speaking, you can view open-source code, but not necessarily put that code to use. Free (as in freedom of expression) software ensures that you can make changes and share those changes with others.
Further, neither open-source nor free software says anything either implicitly or explicitly about its commercialization. While many open-source and free software projects are maintained by non-commercial enterprises, many commercial organizations profit from free software. For example, they might offer support or consultation or outsource modifications and customizations. The business decision around the use of free software is much more often about efficiency and efficacy than the cost of a license.
Richard Stallman launched the free-software movement 35 years ago to ensure that users have the freedom to (1) run, (2) edit, (3) contribute to, and (4) share software. According to lore, in his frustration with a bug in some printer software, he conceived of these four principles of software freedom. The Free Software Foundation has supported and promoted these principles through the invention of licenses (e.g., the General Public License), the development of software, (e.g., emacs and the Gnome desktop), and evangelism through conferences, publications, and seminars.
Perhaps the place where open-source software most directly touches the public is in the realm of the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, convinced his management at CERN to let him release his protocol under a free-software license (previous protocols were proprietary), and Marc Andreessen released the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, under a free-software license. Mosaic incorporated a feature, “view source,” that let any user see the source code of the page they were viewing, bringing an unprecedented level of transparency to computing and leading to the rapid adoption of Web 1.0.
Because contributions to free-software projects are by definition unrestricted, it is not surprising that a decentralized, global community of developers have fueled its growth. The distributed nature of this community exposed the need for tools for distributed software development, which is one reason for the popularity of productivity tools such as “Git.” During the Covid pandemic, the commercial software world adopted the remote collaboration frameworks that have been used by the free-software community for decades.
How Open Source Democratizes Technology
Open source, as described above, undoubtedly has demystified computing for much of the world who would never have the privilege of working for a proprietary software company. Free software has given that same multitude the license to do something tangible with that knowledge.
When I was at One Laptop per Child, we took one additional step toward democratizing software freedom: We provided scaffolding to support new software developers to make changes to the tools we provided them and a mechanism for sharing those changes. (We even added a key to the keyboard dedicated to “view source.”) At one point, more than 50 percent of the patches to our Sugar applications came from children learning to code. Millions of children learned that you did not have to accept the world of computing as you found it (or as dictated by Apple, Microsoft, Google, or Facebook). They were learning to challenge the status quo and invent the future, empowering them to shape the world for the better.
How Open Source Drives Innovation
The clearest way open source drives innovation is by expanding the pool of programmers who can examine, critique, and modify existing code. But, on a broader scale, when the principles of open source are embedded into the process of education itself, the ability to innovate is democratized; it becomes not the privilege of a few, but the right (and obligation) of the many.
Open-source software is a dominant presence in the industry. The majority of cloud applications are open-source, and almost 90 percent of smart phones run open-source software. What’s more, most software developers hone their craft on free software projects, giving them valuable, accessible opportunities to learn, improve their skills and create better, more impactful software throughout their careers.
Focusing specifically on AI, most of the core building blocks of the modern AI stack are free software. And many of the models are available under an open-source license. The current proliferation of AI would be impossible without this core. And the rapid pace of adoption, adaptation, and advancement would be greatly diminished were the global community restricted to operating in proprietary silos instead of building upon each other’s work. Any software project that can benefit from the cross-pollination of ideas is well served by adopting an open-source model.
How Open Source Is a Force for Good
The four principles of free software have analogies in many parts of society: open culture, open government, the right to repair and more. Indeed, the spirit of an open and free society lies at the heart of our democracy. Further, anyone imbued in these principles has set an expectation of transparency, accountability and responsibility in all aspects of their lives.
Going forward, open source will continue to be a tremendous force for good, helping to empower and educate in the following ways:
Open source enables a “constructionist” approach to learning, where you “learn by doing.” This is something I strongly advocate. If you want more learning, you must encourage and facilitate more doing. This principle is why free software was a requirement for the One Laptop per Child project.
Open source offers greater transparency into the technology used by those in power. For example, everyone can better understand the technology that we use to collect and count votes in our elections. With free software, there are no “black boxes” and no “one right way,” allowing us to question and hold those in power to account.
And, lastly, open source creates better technologists. Thanks to continuous collaboration and a spirit of learning from and improving on each other’s ideas, open source communities are capable of weathering extraordinary events like pandemics, as well as responding to the everyday challenges of life with agility and skill. Without question, those with a strong background in free-software development have the power to drive forward new innovations that can benefit and transform not only the world of business, but the world as a whole. The moral of the story? Adopt the open-source model now — and help define the future.