In modern times any discussion of open source is bound to stir up the most heated exchange of words, views, opinions and perhaps even insults. Yet what becomes obvious upon a closer examination of the debate is that the people debating the subject either take a narrow view of open source or perhaps just defend a smaller section of it. Increasingly, the debate surrounding open source and closed source is best understood and left as a choice that should be exercised in the presence of circumstance.
What gets lost in the middle of the flame war is the fact that open source is first and foremost a movement that is largely community driven and that espouses the sharing of effort thus requiring that the products of the movement be accessible to all members of the community. Note that such view of open source does not automatically suggest a particular preference and sole domination of IT professionals of varying skills and interests. The nature of the movement and participation in it can accommodate both individuals and large corporations alike.
The very nature of the movement does not require that organizations denounce any other ideologies that they may have so that they can leverage what the open source movement has to offer. Companies like Yahoo, Google and others are heavy users of open source but the largely open and free services that they offer are as proprietary as Microsoft’s Windows and Office Suites. As an example of Google’s proprietary holdings, the company issued a cease and desist order against a participant in the open source community build around Android.
Increased use of open source products to create services also makes the movement much more formidable compared to other competing ideologies – more specifically perhaps ideologies that may come into conflict with particular aspects of open source such as code sharing.
Any mention of the champions of closed source or proprietary software development would bring out Microsoft on top of the list but as a matter of fact Microsoft is no stranger to open source though it is certainly more openly opportunistic and no doubt looks out for its own survival as a money making venture. However over the years, Microsoft has demonstrated exceptional ability to emulate the advantages that naturally occur in the open source movement because of its participatory nature and community approach to software development. Windows 7 has been tested much more widely with Microsoft’s development team actively encouraging feedback so as to continue to make adjustments and improvements. Windows 7 is the most visible example of how Microsoft has managed to create a buzz around a release much earlier on than has been the norm. With most Microsoft products, CTPs (Community Technology Previews) have become much more common in recent years than earlier on.
The need to release software as open source is more often than note a strategic move that is aimed at commoditizing a market. I am not aware of any companies that create a unique or market leading product and choose to release it as open source. Open sourcing usually targets product that do not have market share as yet and/or whose creators are not able to product the support necessary to bring it to any appreciable level of dominance in the market. Once again this practice is used by companies that both espouse closed-source software development as well as those that rely heavily on open source.
Commercial open source is where the business should be and the money making opportunities will and should arise. One of the main feature of closed-source software is that the barrier to entry is usually high such that simple human ingenuity may not be enough to come up with something unique and different. With such barrier to entry open source becomes a fundamentally attractive option for governments whose aim and objectives will and should include the cultivation and development of a software development industry within their respective borders.
Some of the best know companies in the world at the moment had their start from universities and schools. Yes, Microsoft does offer access to their source code for academic research but how possible is it to come up with products and/or services that build on your knowledge, understanding and modification of Microsoft provided access to the said source code? This is perhaps one of the reasons why any of the more recent start ups tend to built their infrastructure on open source tools and platforms. Microsoft is certainly aware of this and have had a number of initiatives that are targeted at students to encourage them to build their businesses on Microsoft technologies and tools but such efforts will be limited by how well Microsoft can tap into and harness a sense of community and adventurous exploration of their platforms with the possible benefit of making it to the big leagues as has been proven by the current darlings of social networking that have been started at campus dorm rooms using available and accessible open source tools and platforms.
While Microsoft’s and other proprietary companies’ efforts to encourage students to look at their platform and build on it does offer the semblance of openness, they remain both myopic and deeply miss guided. Take an example of any third world country and pose this question: how likely is it for a country to have a Windows Kernel expert? It is not at all impossible but how practical is it to cultivate such level of expertise? How much effort would it take to nurture and grow a Linux/BSD kernel expert in any third world country? Given the nature of source control and management at a proprietary company compared with the source control in the open source movement, it would be obvious that an open source product is much more likely to spawn a lower level expert on the inner workings of any particular product or service.
In conclusion open source encompasses a lot more than just sharing code and the associated license that dictate how sharing happens. It is, at its core, a movement that can accommodate both corporations and individuals who can identify with the spirit of the movement and hence become members. As a movement there are various roles that require different skills hence everyone with a talent can contribute to the well being of the movement. Open source does provide the best opportunity for governments (third world countries to be exact) to cultivate a vibrant ICT industry within their jurisdiction.