Open source software came up in the discussion of intellectual property and fair use in The Internet Course. I wasn’t really expecting it to come up at that point, but I was planning on bringing it into the discussion of privacy and openness next week. It also ties back the the how it works segment.
Through Apache, open source software serves up most of the Web, and through Firefox, a large number of people view it. Linux is big in the corporate server market, and Android dominates in the smartphone market.
Openness means anyone can use the software, but more importantly it means anyone can fix and upgrade the software. As Eric Raymond put it in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” But OSS doesn’t just power the internet, it happens because of the internet. We talked about creation and consumption a couple weeks ago. The collaboration enabled by worldwide instant communication is what lets open source happen, and flourish.
I read Raymond’s book a long time ago, so my memory is probably fuzzy. One story that stuck with me was that of a couple of programmers hired by a large corporation, possibly AT&T, to build a system that would let any of their employees print to any printer in any office in the company. Once they had the project done, they told the company that they needed to release it as open source. The company balked, naturally. Since they had paid tens of thousands of dollars to have this thing built, they couldn’t see a benefit to just giving it away. But the programmers told them that if they don’t open it up, every time they get a new printer and every time a printer driver gets upgraded, they would have to pay someone to write new code. If they give it away, other people will write the code for free, because it’s worth it to them or their employers.
People build open source tools to accomplish necessary tasks, but if selling software isn’t their real business, it can be advantageous to share the code. Someone else might make it better. And everyone benefits.