Software

Why open source isn't just about code

Abby Cabunoc Mayes of the Mozilla Foundation explains why open source is about culture as much as it is about code.

TechRepublic's Dan Patterson asks Abby Cabunoc Mayes of the Mozilla Foundation to discuss how open source is about code, but equally about culture. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Dan Patterson: Open source code makes the business technology world go-around. But open source is not just about code. Abby, could help us understand not just about open source as programming and as an engineering metaphor, or something that is used by engineers. But open source as a fundamental component and something that is kind of culturally ingrained in business technology.

Abby Mayes: For sure. Yeah, and we've seen things like Firefox really succeed where people come together from all over the world to build a product openly, and invite contributions. And we've seen that succeed and really take down a monopoly. And we've seen this work, time and time again, in more than just code, but in businesses, in government, in science. Where people, when they work openly, when they're inviting contributions, they're more innovative, they get better ideas. And they get more buy-in from the community who wants to use them.

Dan Patterson: Yeah. So, often when we look at closed source or proprietary code, it requires vetting. What are some of the advantages of open source?

Abby Mayes: There's a lot of different advantages, depending on which open practices you want to use. So like market share, if you're giving away something for free. That's a big advantage, getting input from your customers. If it's open source you can hear more from the people that are using it. Places like Lego actually use that, if they're thinking about what Lego line to produce next, they have surveys and people can suggest things. And company-creating. You get better innovation when more people, and the right experts, are really working on the products. There's a lot of different advantages. Those are three of them that I can think of now. Yeah.

Dan Patterson: So, I love the example of taking down a monopoly. And we kind of all remember the days where Internet Explorer was the only web browser. Free, though, has some weird connotations associated with it. What makes open source code, and free open source code, different than, say, freeware or applications that are free and have a lot of after-installation costs?

Abby Mayes: I like to think the movement really came together with The Cathedral and the Bazaar, an essay by Eric Raymond. And he compared the two ideas. There's the cathedral, or free software, where a small group of people are putting together a big cathedral that anyone can come to, and attend a service or whatever. He compared that to a bazaar, where everyone is co-creating. There's no real structure, you can set up a table wherever you want. You can haggle with other people. So open source, he really compared that to the Linux foundation at the time, where he was seeing so much delegation, so many people taking on tasks that would have been closed, in the cathedral model. So that idea that anyone can get involved, and anyone can participate, is really that key. Rather than just giving away something for free.

Dan Patterson: Did you call that the cathedral model?

Abby Mayes: Yeah. I don't know if that's a real model. But yeah, he compared the cathedral and the bazaar.

SEE: Google open-sources internal tool for finding font-related security bugs (ZDNet)

Dan Patterson: That is a great metaphor. Can you help us understand a little more about that?

Abby Mayes: Yeah. So, this essay was written in 1997, and it actually inspired Netscape Navigator to open up their source code, back at the beginning, which became the Mozilla project and Firefox. And that really... it's part of that whole history of Mozilla and why open source is part of our code, and part of what we do.

Dan Patterson: What are some of the advantages to that?

Abby Mayes: There's a lot more buy-in from people. And having this distributed model, where anyone can take a part of this, and anyone can be involved in running the project, really helps keep the power not centralized, but really distributed. And so, you can see what's happening to your data. So there's a lot of advantages that way, and a lot more trust with the population. And I think this is where innovation happens. When everyone can be a part of something, and where everyone can submit the best ideas. And I think we saw that in the scientific revolution, when the academic journals started. And people were publishing their research, and then letting other people use that and build upon that and discover more things. We saw the same thing happen with open source. Where you can really take this and use and do whatever you want with it.

Dan Patterson: I wonder if you could leave us with a forecast. If you look at, say, the next 18- to 36-months, in trends, what do you see emerging in open source that is truly innovative, or takes advantage of many business technology trends like IoT, big data, machine learning?

Abby Mayes: That's a great question. I think in the IoT space, we're seeing more and more open practices, and more places like hacker spaces, where everyone can get into this open hardware movement. And we're seeing more practices come so that they're taking care of our data properly. I think by working openly, we can really move the needle forward with privacy and security. With just Internet health, generally. So people are innovating more, and keeping the data more secure.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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