Why we're fans of Open Source

05 Nov 2014

The New Zealand Open Source Awards are happening on 12 November at Te Papa (you can purchase a ticket for $45 by emailing awards@nzosa.org.nz) and InternetNZ is a proud sponsor of them. But we thought it was a good opportunity to elaborate why we support and celebrate things Open Source.

When people write about Open Source, or try and explain it to friends at parties, there are the inevitable analogies containing phrases like “free as in beer” or “free as in speech”. For me, however, all of those conversations miss the thing that makes Open Source a concept that has changed the world.

I believe that the defining factor behind the success of Open Source is that it has completely changed who is in charge of defining both the speed and direction of technological innovation.

Before the Open Source paradigm was as widely used as it is today, the direction and speed of technological innovation was the domain of the few.  If you woke up one morning 25 years ago, and decided that you wanted your Operating System to do things a little bit differently, then you had few choices…  Go back to sleep, or apply for a job at the Operating System vendor and try to convince them you had a good idea. Your only other option was to develop the whole system from scratch.

A daunting prospect that put a great many inventors back to sleep I’m sure.  Innovating and deploying core Operating System concepts before Open Source weren’t really something that you could do.

Fast forward to the present day:  If you woke up today and decided that you wanted an Open Source Operating System that was just a little bit different than any which currently existed, then you have a much larger range of options.  Options ranging from downloading the source code of the system and making the changes yourself, to paying a freelance development company to make the changes on your behalf.

Whichever of these you choose, going back to sleep seems the least likely outcome.

What has happened here is that the end-user has been empowered to be able to determine the direction that they choose to innovate and expand their environment.  They have been given the ability to choose that they want the new feature in the next month, not the next year when a traditional vendor may want to release the next version.  This shift of innovation direction and speed is one of the enablers for the ‘permissionless innovation’ we hear organisations such as Google and Facebook praising for their successes.

But we can’t stop there. If you think that living the Open Source dream is all about installing Linux or running your website on Drupal then you’re on the right direction but thinking WAY too small.

What if instead of waking up and wishing that my Operating System was just a little different, it was my fridge, or my television that I wanted some slight changes made to? What if it was the way that my house lights worked. What if it was my watch, my headphones, my dishwasher, my garage-door opener, etc?

How can I take control of the direction and speed of innovation across all the rest of the things in my life?

We may be seeing the answer in the way that people are looking to extend the Open Source paradigm out of the traditional Operating System and application space and into other areas.

Two of these areas are the massive increase in hardware controlled by Arduino components and the rise of technologies such as Software Defined Networking (SDN).  Both of these technologies look to extend the sorts of winning Open Source methodologies that the OS and apps spaces have enjoyed and apply them to hardware control and networking respectively.

I already wake up each morning with thoughts on how to ‘improve’ my alarm clock, here’s hoping that in the future, more of these will involve Open Source solutions and less solutions relating to hammers.