Open Source 101

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning a ton about Open Source Software (OSS) – what it is and what makes it so powerful.  There must be folks out there who, like me, are new to the topic so I thought I’d start by breaking down the basics….Open Source 101.

What is it? The term Open Source applies when a software program’s source code is freely (as in free speech, not necessarily zero cost) available to the public. Hence, such program’s can be modified and distributed by anyone. OSS is often developed as a community as opposed to by a singular individual or organization.

Where did it come from? The history of open source can be traced back to the creation of the computer but we’re going to make a massive oversimplification for the sake of time and attention span and fast-forward to the 1980’s and Richard Stallman, developer extraordinaire and software freedom activist. Stallman launched the GNU Operating System project, created the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and is the main author of the GNU General Public License (GPL). This GPL was then used by Linus Torvalds in creation and release of the Linux OS – one of the best examples of free and open source software collaboration. A global community of developers, using Linux and few other platforms, drove OSS growth during the internet/ boom. This growth continues to be seen as the internet remains a necessary life- kernel. Now, open source runs much of the Internet and the Web – you may not even realize how much you rely on open source programs! The modern-day movement is supported by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) – a non-profit OSS advocacy corporation.

Why does it matter? What Stallman and others did in their frustration with proprietary solutions was disrupt the technology status-quo. The premise of the modern movement is that people unconcerned with proprietary ownership or financial gain will produce a more useful product than commercially developed programs. Further, by decentralizing the model of program development, a more powerful and reliable (bug free) solution may be found at a quicker rate than through traditional means.

If the source code is intended to be distributed for free, how can you monetize it?
Open source disrupts traditional product to profit models and creates greater incentive for all market players to innovate. While OSS business models may be a bit elusive, they exist. Some successful OS business models include:

  1. Dual Licenses – Offer a free, open source version of a product under a GPL and paid version(s) under commercial license. This is also often referred to as a Freemium model. WordPress, who hosts this blog, relies on such a model.
  2. Sell Support Services – Build a services and support business on top of your OSS. RedHat is a popular example of this.
  3. Hardware – Bundle the software with a hardware you build or run. Android does this.
  4. Adware – Sell advertising space like Mozilla Foundation did in its crazy lucrative royalty agreement with Google.

The open source movement served as a bridge during the recent economic downturn when large corporations were cutting R&D budgets and headcount. It provided the people and technical expertise to sustain a consumer driven technology sector which mainstream markets and large organizations fundamentally cannot do. It is estimated that by 2016, 50% of all software will be OSS. This is the result of passionate users operating as both the demand generators and suppliers.

Now we just have to figure out how to apply this fight the power approach in a scalable way to open up other troubled industries like healthcare IT, pharmaceutical drug development, scientific research, education and energy…..but I think it’s best that I get off my soap box now.

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