This feature first appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Open source software — what is it, how has it changed and grown over time, where is it going? Can this model be evolved to better serve other areas of IT, or even other areas of life as we know it? To understand open source anything, one must understand the human impulse to collaborate, to work in functional groups that often don’t directly benefit the individual, but do serve the greater good.
Open source software is simply defined as software that is created under a license that grants anyone the legal right to add, modify, grow, or destroy any part of the software. It got its start in the early days of computing when software developers realized that if you share things, you receive things in return, and that such give-and-take can speed development across the board.
In the 1980s, the model was largely set aside for commercial debuts and licenses that make money for corporations. There was a small, select group, however, that kept going, that kept sharing, and that kept the concept of open source development very much alive.
Led by ex-MIT employee Richard Stallman, a handful of these pioneering developers launched the GNU operating system in 1985, in the hopes of creating an open source solution capable of competing with names like Microsoft.
The next major open source experiment was set in motion by Netscape, which publicly released the source code of its popular web browser in 1998. Suddenly, anyone could develop Netscape add-ons or software. Microsoft killed the dream with its release of Internet Explorer, quickly embedded in Windows, which became the default browser of choice for many.
The open source methodology stayed alive and eventually thrived, however, with the development and gradual spread of Linux. Linux began as a DOS-like operating system that was mainly used on personal computers as a small, light, open source alternative to Windows. Linux offered advanced users, especially hackers, much more flexibility than Windows.
Though Linux didn’t immediately take over the world, the versatility of open source development eventually led to hundreds of different distributions (or versions) of Linux. Entire corporations sprang up around popular Linux distros to provide high-level support and other benefits.
In 2018, Linux-derived operating systems have crossed into the mainstream and are used in homes, schools, and commercial endeavors around the globe. One of the best uses for Linux is in the mobile arena. It is light, portable, and lacks a user interface, so it’s easy to make into anything you want to go on top of it.
Mobile game developers can create hooks, new ways to display, and there really is no limit to the types of things you can make when your base to create is completely open. Open source development is a model that has been nothing short of revolutionary in the IT realm. What about elsewhere?
Could open source thinking open up the world?
Outside the software arena, humans, in general, are actually getting less collaborative. We talk about the benefits of the open market, of bringing everyone together, but there seems to always be a money or power motive to such collaboration. We have so much potential to open source things that could lead to major breakthroughs in all areas of life.
Gene therapy and designer cures could have a huge impact on all types of human illness. What if we could open source the area of gene therapy and all of the CRISPR advances that bio companies are making. We could allow smaller companies and individuals to help create and collaborate on new treatments for new diseases.
Food is another area that could benefit from open source collaboration and development. What if corn biochemists and other high-yield crop manufacturers opened up on their creation processes? Could a small lab or an individual possibly forge a breakthrough that will grow corn in the desert?
The production and consumption of energy has done nothing but grow and expand for the last 200 years. Humans have done nothing but profit from that growth. What if we could create a way to open source the electrical grid, or even the design of the grid?
Let’s think even bigger: What if power was free or if we worked on coming up with ways to make it free? How would this change the world? What might human ingenuity be capable of if basic human needs were no longer a daily consideration?
There is so much protection around drugs and their patents — but doesn’t an open source methodology make more sense? Couldn’t we — shouldn’t we — share knowledge about common drugs and the way they are made? Could we create better and cheaper means of treating and curing diseases and other health problems?
Why is drug creation done in a vacuum? Why are labs not joining forces, asking the public for ideas, and having giant global competitions for cures? There is no money in cures, only treatments. If we could change one small thing, we could create a snowball effect that could possibly change the world. What is that one thing?
Education and how children learn could benefit from open source methodologies. What if there were a repository of every lesson plan for every grade and every school, all online? What kind of benefit would our children receive with great freedom to feed their brains and grow their imaginations?
Open source already works in IT
Connected cities, real-time trading, and new and emerging cryptocurrencies are just a few tech trends to benefit from open source transparency and cooperation in their creation and evolution. We can already see the benefits of this level of knowledge sharing and collaboration.
These and other areas will continue to grow and proposer because individuals and small, personally funded companies push the boundaries of what we accept as commonplace. People who are willing to work on problems that not only affect them but affect everyone will give rise to solutions that benefit the entire world.
There are quite a few lessons that have been learned over the years when it comes to open source in the information technology industry.
We know that you can’t trust that there will be no stupid people involved. This one is a familiar aspect of open source: an individual opens up a piece of code that doesn’t work, that doesn’t do what they say it does, or they have no clue what they are doing. Peer review will always be necessary, no matter the application for open source development.
We also know that open source thinking is susceptible to bad actors. As Batman once learned, some people just want to watch the world burn. Given freely available access to certain stockpiles of knowledge, the same sort of people who create malware and computer viruses might create deadly new drugs, or poison a major water supply.
Checks and balances are always needed for collaborative ventures in other social arenas. Open source collaboration could only proceed in certain areas with clear boundaries and unwavering protections in place.
Lastly, understanding that the solution to an open source problem needs to come a verified source is important. If you can’t tell who the player is, then it makes no sense to use the solution. Anonymous participation is not productive and has no place in open sourcing.
And yet, the possibilities are still tantalizing. What began as a way to exchange ideas about the solution to a coding problem, or a new way to browse the internet, could given rise to a methodology for solving the world’s toughest problems.
The best utopian fiction — think Star Trek — envisions humans working together to eradicate poverty, hunger, and war. Maybe broader application of open source thinking is a first step to making those visions reality.