Open Source

Fifty shades of open source

To many, open source is black and white -- software is either open or not. Jack Wallen sees the new world order in shades of gray and begs the open source community to be more open in their attitude.

I wanted so badly to not use that title — but honestly, it fits. I've been thinking a lot lately on exactly what it means to be open source. I only moments ago read an interview of one of the founders of the Free Software Foundation and was reminded of the phrase:

Everything in moderation.

Up until recently, there have been three levels of open source users:

  • Those that will not use anything until it is 100% open
  • Those that will use anything, so long as it gets the job done
  • Those that will not use open source, regardless

Like so many things, it is that middle sector that seems to be winning out. But even within that group, there are shades and variations. And, to make matters more interesting, there are developers and businesses who are starting not only to see and reap the benefits of that gray area, they are starting to drive it forward. This means the open source community might well have to become a bit more open to a few new shades in their world.

Let me explain.

  • Steam is close to being released unto the world.
  • The auto industry is proclaiming the release of the first "open source" car.
  • Social networking APIs are flying rampant across the internet.
  • Governments across the globe are trying to figure out how to save money.
  • Businesses are adopting open source at blinding speeds.
  • The Android platform is arriving as a front-runner in the M2M space.

What do all of these things have in common? On varying levels — open source. What is, however, becoming abundantly clear is that the majority of the prime movers aren't purists — they need to mix and match metaphors and technologies to create the best solution for the problem at hand. This means some will be using open source in one area and closed source in another. It also means there will be situations where open and closed source technologies must function together to create a seamless whole.

And that, my friends, is the real and true rub. That rub, however, rubs some of the open source community in the wrong way. To those that have issue with amalgams, I have this to say:

It's 2013 — time to realize "World Domination" will never happen for any one technology company (that is, until the Singularity hits).

Even beyond that, all of us open source advocates need to finally come to grips with the idea that a few new shades of openness are evolving. Companies are taking advantage of open source technology; using it to drive forward their (mostly) proprietary software. So long as those companies do not obfuscate the open source technologies, all is well. Instead of the open source community getting up in arms about this, they should be celebrating the fact that their technology is being use to further another project.

At the same time, these businesses must also be thankful in the form of giving back. Should that company improve the open source code, it is their duty to hand those improvements back to the community that created the piece that helped them.

There are also companies out there hoping to make a profit from open source software. Those businesses cannot (nor should not) be frowned upon. A lot of the open source community I know feels profit should not be made from the GPL. To them I say, if a company can leverage open source to turn a profit, they should not only be allowed, they should be encouraged.

Think about it this way: Let's say Company X uses open source and creates a product that everyone wants. Company X makes sure to keep the source available, but also creates proprietary features or add-ons that help them make a profit from the original project. Instead of the open source community bemoaning the fact that Company X created software with code that will never be released to the public, the open source community should be raising their hands in celebration to say, "Without us Company X would never have made it!"

It's like Facebook. Facebook was built, from the ground up, using open source technology. It's rare I hear the open source community celebrating this. Instead, more voices are raised in protest to what Facebook is monitoring on their feeds. It's the same thing happening to Ubuntu now — the open source community crying out that Ubuntu Unity is allowing the great and powerful monster that is Amazon to monitor our searching. It's not, "Look at this cool feature that is helping to bridge open source to business." It's "I don't want Amazon knowing what I search in the privacy of my own home."

To that, I say — let 'em monitor my searching. Why? First and foremost, I've nothing to hide. Second, I shop Amazon a lot and find the Unity Dash actually makes that easier now and my search results are generally far more accurate now. But that's just me. And even though I am just as paranoid as the next, I'm also open to the idea that businesses will continue to work together to help one another — like Ubuntu and Amazon.

The world is changing faster than we can possibly manage to keep up. That change is driven by technology — and, on nearly every level, open source. The whole of the open source world is not nearly as black and white as it once was. Shouting out, "I want everything 100% open!" is like saying, "I want to use a computer that was 100% made in America!"

Yes, you can use a 100% open source computer. But, if you are truly a purist, you:

  • Aren't accepting documents from anyone who created or modified that document in anything that isn't open source.
  • Aren't going to any website, of any kind, if it isn't 100% open.
  • Aren't watching videos or listening to music.
  • Probably aren't actually using a computer, seeing as how that hardware wasn't created in an open environment.

Do you see where this is going? It's a new world. With that new world comes a different shade of open source. I like to call that shade "open, open source". What exactly does that mean? It means the definition of open source, and its driving community, is a bit more fluid and accepting than it once was. If you're still living in a reality where open source has but two shades, I can honestly say that digital life is going to get more and more challenging for you. It's time to open your eyes and accept the fifty shades of open source.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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