I’ve just finished reading ‘Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary’ by Linus Torvalds. If you don’t know anything about Linus, it’s worth finding out. Or at least learning about the impact that the software project that he started in his bedroom has had on the world.
Put simply, Linux, his operating system, is now ubiquitous – wherever you are in the world, it’s likely you’re using it on a daily basis. The book was published in 2002. And today, the Linux project has only grown in influence, and become the foundation of some of the most valuable technology in the world – not bad for ‘free’ open source software…
Open source software is an approach that had many scratching their heads in the early days. Many commercial companies just couldn’t believe that a genuine business could be built on the foundations of software that others had developed for free and that they didn’t own. But, as history has proved, that belief has only shown them to have vastly underestimated the power of the open source philosophy.
So, what’s open source? Put simply, it’s software development where anyone can participate in either the development of the project or its commercial exploitation. And it brings with it one huge benefit: the more people that can review the code, the higher the chances are that any bugs will be squashed.
It’s an alien philosophy to much of the commercial landscape in different sectors, even today. But it’s not difficult to understand. There are different variations but in essence, anyone is entitled to change, improve or exploit the software’s source code (i.e. the fundamental programming instructions that underpin the software). But every change that they make has to be made available for everyone else at the same time.
You often hear the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”. It’s a statement that is most commonly attributed to Sir Isaac Newton in 1675 which is apt, because it relates to scientific research. And what is computer programming but an extension, the evolution of modern science? In the same way as researchers made new discoveries in science thanks to the discoveries of those who came before them, the same applies to open source software: instead of barring access to the best and brightest minds on the planet to your project, you open the doors to everyone from day one. The reward? Everybody is then able to collectively benefit from each incremental step forward – result in a vastly accelerated pace of innovation.
If you don’t work in technology, perhaps you’re wondering – why would people work for free? In most cases, open source software development is a collaborative project that’s driven by the efforts of volunteers. It’s not as if they are being directly remunerated for their hard work.
Note: we’re now potentially starting to see this change with some fascinating cryptocurrency experiments whereby the incentives are weighted in such a way that developers can earn a token for early work carried out on a protocol will potentially appreciate greatly in value over the coming years. Indeed, in many ways, cryptocurrency is exactly the way in which you bootstrap development of such projects that were, until now, pretty much unfundable.
But it’s this drive to contribute that is the source of the magic itself. As an individual coder, open source projects are where you have the opportunity to make your mark, regardless of background, location or training. And you have the opportunity to work alongside the brightest minds on the planet in the areas that truly fascinate you.
And the result? Most rational people around the world would choose to use the ‘best’ software (however that is defined). Which they can then take as the foundation for building things that are best suited to the precise context (users) that they want to address (develop a product or service for).
Suddenly you have a better product. The foundational software is built to much higher standards than a team toiling away in secrecy would ever be capable of building. Which means you’re freed up to focus on building the best possible services on top of those existing solid foundations. If your goal is to make money, knock yourself out. The open source movement doesn’t prevent that. It simply facilitates that as an option after you start developing on the best version of that software that the world has to offer at that particular point in time.
In many ways, open source is Darwinian in character. It represents survival-of-the-fittest in the world of code. But it also brings some interesting challenges for certain businesses. Imagine your organisation pays developers to work on open source software. The chances are that someone outside your organisation is going to come up with code that’s better written than the code you’ve paid for (i.e. written by your employees). That is, ultimately, A Good Thing. But engendering a culture that supports that – i.e. dealing with that ‘talent’ delta – really comes down to having an ‘open source culture’ in your DNA.
The best code wins.
It’s often mentioned that there’s a little bit of an anti-establishment feel to much of the open source movement. That’s a great thing. After watching the cryptocurrency scene for a number of years, it strikes me that this leads to a heuristic that we should all be following: if you see the best and brightest being drawn to an open source project, it’s an indication that there’s something exciting going on. And where the passionate work goes, the most significant innovation usually follows.
Today, Linux-based Android has c.70% of the mobile market. In terms of the overall market for operating systems, Android (based on Linux) has edged ahead of Microsoft. So this free, open source software is now running the majority of the world’s technology. Quite a statistic. Which must be shocking to those who could never have imagined that businesses could be built on top of ‘free’ foundations.
The project that I’m involved with is entirely open source (you can check out the GitHub repo and download the code if you like). And the areas of technology (and, for that matter, scientific research) that interest me greatest are all open source.
Why wouldn’t you want to see the largest number of people possible working on the same goals?