January 5, 2010

The Beauty of Open-Source Software: the Freedom to Innovate

Over the last couple of days, I have been listening to a very enlightening series of podcast interviews. The topic of the interviews has been open-source software. The interviews were with several key players in the open-source software movement, including Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system. As I listened to the wisdom of many accomplished figures in the software community, I thought about my own personal journey from "enslavement" to "freedom." I will talk about these interviews a little bit later in this article. Several years ago, I decided that I had had enough with Microsoft Outlook. At the time, I was having problems with buggy performance in Outlook, and I wanted to change to alternative software. That is when I discovered that I was trapped in a virtual prison from which I was not allowed to escape. I discovered that the contacts that I had accumulated over the years were trapped in a proprietary file system made up of .pst files. I tried for several days to extract my data from a .pst file, and I realized that Microsoft had made it very difficult to extract the information without having to manually retype all of the information into a new product. Was this intentional? It was then that I realized that proprietary file systems were not good for the end user. What does the end user do if they don't like a product from a vendor and want to switch to a competitor's product? I realized that if everyone used open standards, the consumer would have the greatest freedom. My experience taught me that I had to break free from the software prison in which I found myself. In 2004, I download Red Hat Linux, wiped my computer clean, and since then, I have never looked back.

Installing Linux for the first time took me less than an hour. When I booted into Red Hat Linux for the first time, I was impressed by how polished and beautiful the alternative operating system was. I had heard that Linux was hard to use and only for geeks. However, I found it to be as easy to use as Windows. I also came to find that I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Linux is part of a much larger movement. Open source software is rooted in a philosophical approach that is radically different than the approach that grounded the traditional business models of the twentieth century. The basic concept is that "I share my knowledge with you, you share your knowledge with me, and we all benefit." This concept of sharing is very important. When I was growing up, my perception was that those who seemed smart had access to some arcane body of knowledge that I did not have access to. Those that went to Yale or Harvard were individuals blessed with special privileges, and access to the information that would ensure that they retained an elevated standing in society. The concept of openness that buoyed open-source software said "if you have the requisite curiosity and motivation, the information is all here and readily available to you." I was greatly intrigued by this idea. In fact, it opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking. I came alive. I began to "see" freedom everywhere. I began to see a whole different set of principles that were driving people to revolutionary action. For example, Jimmy Wales created Wikipedia, a completely free repository of human knowledge. This movement has permanently changed the way that the world operates. It is an evolutionary process that is still taking place, and open-source software is one small part of that change.

If open-source software is part of a new movement that spurs innovation, how does it differ from the traditional business models? The old world system consisted of patents, proprietary knowledge, greed, secrecy, and locking in consumers into contracts from which they could not escape. Each of these things were an impediment to true innovation. I will briefly discuss why:

  • Patents: the stated goal of patents was to protect the ideas of an inventor from being exploited by a competitor. The claim was that if one created a patent, he or she could then charge others to use the same idea. If you really analyze this concept closely, the idea if utterly absurd. Here is an example to illustrate. If I don't know how speak Spanish, and I learn Spanish by listening to a group of people, can the people then charge me for what I have learned from them? No. The ability to learn and grow is a God-given right. Patents restrict the right to discover and implement an idea. They create uncertainty. If I come up with a great idea, I now have to find out whether someone else has patented it before I implement it. All ideas should be free for anyone to utilize and implement in a physical form. The person that profits the most from the idea should be the one that can come up with the best real-world application of the idea. If the whole idea of patents were revoked, innovation would really take off.
  • Proprietary knowledge: proprietary knowledge benefits the owner of that knowledge, but not human society as a whole. Imagine if someone claimed the English language as their own. Imagine that that person charged everyone a fee to use the English language. This would be criminal on two fronts. First, it locks up the knowledge of the English language so that bright people no longer have the ability to analyze and improve on it. Secondly, if that person had a monopoly on the English language, their would be no real incentive to advance the language as rapidly as possible, because everyone would already be "locked in." Why waste energy and resources when you clients are trapped?
  • Greed: I believe that greed is the single most damaging characteristic in human history. If you look closely at every atrocity ever committed, it usually had to do with the greed of an individual or group. It normally stemmed from a belief that "my interests are far more important than anyone else's." In this kind of scenario, it is best to keep the subject as dumb and uninformed as possible, so that they do not question the fact that you are exploiting them. I thought a great deal about this idea when I went to Best Buy recently on Black Friday. There were aisles of computers loaded with Windows 7 as if no other alternatives existed. The fact of the matter is that powerful forces do not want the consumer to know that there are alternatives; if the consumer is kept ignorant, he will continue to choose your product because he feels that he has no other options.
  • Secrecy: An honorable person has nothing to hide. From Enron to Bernie Madoff, recent stories of corporate corruption made it clear that there are organization that NEED secrecy because what they do is not in people's best interest. Implicit in the idea of secrecy is that "I have something to hide that would be embarrassing if revealed." I will give a specific example of this. I found out several months ago when a very popular model of phone came out, that the device cost about US$75 each to manufacture in China. Yet the device was selling for about $300 retail. This is the kind of information that that particular manufacturer would like to keep secret. In truth, what the manufacturer was doing was absolute robbery. Transparency makes it harder for a business to descend to unscrupulous practices.
  • Locking in consumers: When I think of consumer lock in, I immediately think of slavery. Where I live, one cable company has a complete monopoly on cable television and high speed internet access. There is one viable competitor, but their service is so much slower that I do not consider it to be an equivalent competitor. So I feel locked-in. If I want good cable and Internet service, I have no other choice. I used to watch my cable bill creep up month after month. Mysteriously, this gradual rise stopped when I started canceling services such as digital cable, and threatening to defect to the competitor. I have promised myself that I will avoid lock-in wherever possible. I bought an unlocked gsm cell phone which allows me to have a month-to-month account with any cell phone provider. If I travel overseas, I simply throw a foreign provider's sim card in the phone, and I am ready to go. Freedom is a wonderful thing.

So, as you can see, my discovery of Linux opened up a whole new way of thinking about everything. I began to scrutinize other companies and people who were providing me services to see if their motives were in my best interest. There are a lot of good people and businesses out there. There are reputable and honorable businesses that really put the customer first. Linux and open-source software really shine because they REALLY put the end user at the forefront. The open-source community not only accepts feedback, they vehemently encourage it. They are interested in your ideas and they want your help. This concept really resonated with me as I listened to the interviews with open-source and Linux powerhouses over the last couple of days. The one interview that struck me the most was one with Mitchell Baker. She was one of the founding members of the Mozilla Foundation and is the current CEO. She was instrumental in the Firefox web browser project. The interview is profound on many levels, but I will let you be the judge.

In this article, I discussed openness and freedom, so in closing, I will leave you with an interesting exercise. Ogg Vorbis is an audio codec that is widely considered to be superior to mp3. Ogg is not encumbered by patent licensing as mp3 is. However, many in some sectors of the technology industry would prefer that no one know about Ogg Vorbis because it threatens current revenue streams. Think about that: they want to hide superior technology because it threatens their wallets. Very interesting. Perhaps if you are not ready to make the leap to open-source software and/or Linux, this can be a first alternative step. See if you can figure out a way to play this interview: http://podcasts.linux-foundation.org/ogg/aug_08/Mitchell_Baker.ogg

Hint: there are two software packages, either of which would make this test very easy: one is a web browser, the other is a media player. The media player starts with the letter "V."

In closing, I have found my continuing journey towards freedom to be very rewarding. Perhaps this article will give you some things to think about that may inspire you to start or accelerate your own journey.

Original article location. 

Click Here!